It started with a phone call early last Thursday morning, as I was gathering my books before leaving to teach an early morning Torah class. The call troubled me, distracting me even as I tried to teach a little while later. The next day, the original call and several subsequent calls from the same person continued to distract me. The voice was clearly that of an Israeli, speaking in rather gruff Hebrew, shifting back and forth between Hebrew and English. There were expressions of deference, saying in Hebrew, lichvod ha’rav/with honor for the rabbi, if not a tone of deference. The words came with urgency, a medical emergency, used to live in Boston, recently moved to New York, only health insurance is in Massachusetts. He had returned to Boston, therefore, for a diagnosis and, presumably, treatment of a growth in his mouth. He was convinced it was cancer. He had an appointment later that morning. Taking in as much as I could while standing on one foot – the Talmudic sage Hillel said to love your neighbor as yourself while standing on one foot -- trying to stuff books into my bag, I said I would call him at 9:00 o’clock after my class.
That night, feeling uneasy, I did a Google search of the man’s name, arrested twice for fraud, time in prison. There were some others of the same name; perhaps I had the wrong one. The next morning I called the hostel and asked to cancel the reservations I had paid for. The clerk took the information and said she would take care of it even though she shouldn’t on such short notice, telling me to give more notice next time I needed to cancel. All day I struggled with conflicting feelings. On one hand I felt relieved, on the other I felt concerned and guilty, still wondering if perhaps he really was sick, thinking about how he would feel when he returned to the hostel and found he had no place to stay, even if he was a scoundrel. I kept waiting for an angry phone call. Just before Shabbos, the phone rang. Seeing it was him, I didn’t pick it up. A little while later, taking a deep breath, I listened to the message, words of profound apology, so grateful that I had paid for a place to stay, thanking me for all of my help, wishing me a Shabbat shalom and joyful Purim. For all of my consternation, for all of my certainty that it was a scam, I felt a wave of relief that the clerk had not come through with my request to cancel. Most of all, I felt relief that a human being had not experienced a moment of shock and betrayal on my account, however malicious his own intent may have been.
It was the week whose Torah portion opens with the law of the half-shekel, a tax for the upkeep of the holy Temple (Ex. 30:11-16). A minimal amount of money with maximum symbolic import, the poor are not to give less and the rich are not to give more. All are equal in God’s house, each one but a half, the presence of each needed to create wholeness. We had read the same words a few weeks earlier on Shabbat Sh’kalim/the Sabbath of the Shekels, the first of four special Sabbaths that precede the month of Nisan, each helping us in a different way of preparation for Passover and the journey to freedom.
That week was the third of the four special weeks, Shabbat Parah/the Sabbath of the heifer. The ritual of the red heifer as described in the Torah is a mysterious rite (Numbers 19:1-22). A red heifer is slaughtered and burned, cedar wood, hyssop, and scarlet wool dipped into the blood, the priest then to bathe in mayyim chayyim/living waters. Of those involved in the ritual, the pure become impure and the impure are made pure, an intermingling of states, perhaps of identities and perceptions of self. It is a rite to be utilized following contact with death, a way of purification and transition. Marking a way of ritual purification, it comes also to be a way of moral purification, of starting again, reminding us of what it means to be alive, to truly choose life. That is the intent of the prophet Ezekiel’s words as read on that Sabbath, I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit will I put within you, and I will take away the heart of stone out of your flesh, and I will give you a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:16-38).
Seeking God’s forgiveness of the people for the sin of the golden calf and renewal for his own flagging faith, Moses asks to see God. Instead, God reveals the essential attributes of compassion by which we are able to see God’s presence in the world and which we are to emulate: Holy One of Being, Holy One of Being, God merciful and compassionate, patient, abounding in love and faithfulness, assuring love for thousands of generations, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin…. Striving toward wholeness amidst life’s contradictions, confident in the judgment of the Holy One, I entered last Shabbos with a sense of inner peace, grateful for a clerk’s error.
Rabbi Victor H. Reinstein