ORDER in the court! Order in this sense means silence, or good behavior.
Order in the Torah means sequence. Did the events recorded in the Torah actually happen in the sequence in which they are recorded?
The question seems almost non-sensical. Who writes things out of order? Actually, both fiction and non-fiction are filled with events out of order: with flashbacks, with contemporary references in histories, with oscillations between one generation and another, or within early and later stages of a single generation or a single person’s life.
Authorities differ as to whether the Torah is written in sequence, or out of sequence. Each position in the debate is far from obvious. Each position must wrestle with interpretive challenges.*
If I hold that the Torah is always written in sequence, then why, for example, were the laws in this week’s Torah portion delivered after Korach’s rebellion, by which time the Jews are already in the period of their wandering in the desert? These laws — how to purify oneself from spiritual contamination, or impurity (tum’a) — were clearly practiced many years earlier, when the Tabernacle was dedicated.
How could they have been practiced earlier if I hold that the Torah reflects the actual sequence of events, with these laws being revealed only later?
But if I hold that the Torah is sometimes written out of sequence, what was the compelling reason to record the laws of purification in this week’s Torah portion, much later than they were given?
With either position — the Torah is or is not always sequential — interpretive challenges abound.
THIS is what Netziv (1816-1892) says about the placement of the laws of purification in this week’s portion in the Torah.
It is clear that these laws originated much earlier. Concerning the Levites, it is written that if they become impure, their impurity is to be removed by the sprinkling of spring water in which the ashes of the red cow are mixed. How is that possible if the law of the red cow was unknown at the time the laws of the Levites were delivered? The red cow becomes known only in this week’s portion — proof positive that this week’s portion is out of sequence; it had to have orginated earlier.
Another proof of the out-of-sequnce placement of the red cow: The day after the Tabernacle was dedicated — recorded all the way back in the book of Exodus — the red cow was burned. Again, how was that possible if the law of the red cow was unknown then?
Well, if the law of the red cow was known back then, why was it placed specifically in the middle of the book of Numbers, with the Jews well into their 40-year period of wandering in the desert?
First, based on the Talmud (Moed Katan 28), the law of the red cow (19:1-22) is placed near the death of Miriam (later in this portion; 20:1) to inform us that just as the process of purification atones (via the spring water cum red cow’s ashes), so too the death of the righteous atones.
Second, the midrash says that thematic linkages between out-of-sequence events in the Torah proceed not only forward — to the passage about the death of Miriam, which follows the laws of the red cow. Linkages proceed backward, too — in this case, to the record of Korach’s rebellion in last week’s portion (16:1-35).
Korach tried to grasp a level of holiness higher than what he was assigned — he wanted Moses’ level, not content with his own special status as a Levite. This, of course, led to the civil war within the Jewish people.
This is what Netziv writes about the placement of the red cow after the story of Korach. This out-of-sequence placement is intended to highlight the distinction between holiness and purification.
This is the distinction: Holiness is being in the presence of G-d. Higher levels of holiness betoken greater closeness to G-d. Purity is the shedding of spiritual contamination. The process of purification returns one to a state in which striving for holiness is possible.
Holiness is positive. Purification is overcoming the negative. Holiness is the end goal; purity is the prerequisite.
One might think that only holiness is subject to perversion, per Korach. The non-sequential placement of the laws of purification (the preparation and use of the ashes of the red cow) shows that purification is also subject to perversion, per the Sadducees. To wit:
The Sadducees were an ancient group that rejected the Oral Torah, the interpretations of the Torah by the authoritative rabbinic sages (Chazal). While Korach sought an unwarranted holiness, thus bringing great internal strife, the Sadducees engaged in a corrupted holiness, based on their faulty interpretation of the Torah.
For example, the Sadducees maintained that if a mourner — someone whose close relative has died but has not yet been buried — were a priest (kohane), this mourner would compromise his holiness if he burned the red cow to secure its ashes. So the Sadducees forbade him from doing so.
The rabbinic sages, however, said that the Torah allows a mourner to burn the red cow, since being a mourner does not compromise one’s holiness.
The Sadducees confused holiness and purity, wrongly forbidding a mourner from participating in the purification process (e.g., burning a red cow), which is different from the holiness process (protecting or increasing one’s holiness).
The rabbinic opponents of the Sadducees sustained the distinction between holiness and purity. To demonstrate their firm rejection of the Sadducees’ confusion, the rabbinic sages disposed of the ashes that the Sadducees secured without a mourner’s participation in the process.
To toss these ashes was no small thing, given that a perfectly red cow was found only once in several generations. Its ashes were reused all this time.
The Sadducees brought their own form of destruction — this time, of the Jewish religion rather than of the Jewish leadership.
By placing the laws of purification right after the story of Korach, the Torah tells us that more than an unwarranted grab for political authority can undermine the Jewish people. So can an unwarranted grab for hermeneutical — interpretive — authority.
My gratitude to Rabbi Dani Rapp for assistance in reading Netziv.
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