Bible’s Insightful Psychology
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Mention “religion” or “God” to some people, and they cringe or change the subject. But discuss science, and you evoke no emotional response. Why?
Unfortunately, Bible (Torah) is not viewed as valid and true as science. This is because Bible asks us to conform our beliefs, actions and values; Bible imposes walls that impede the attainment of our desires. Bible feels authoritarian, restrictive and unpleasant, ripping us away from our freedom to chase any pleasure or desire; we cant tolerate losing the “free” part our freewill. On the other hand, science relates to the physical world and not to how we must think, feel or act. Science is impersonal, evoking no resistance from us, and it’s quite tangible and “real.” Scientific fact does not compete with our wishes. It is Bible’s opposition to our feelings and its assumed irrelevance to our happiness that generates a resistance to explore Bible and value it. We feel religion is optional, while science is fact. However, our feelings do not accurately assess what’s real and what provides happiness. Bible’s restrictions are no grounds for viewing it any less valid and beneficial than science. God created both Bible and physical creation; both equally represent what is real and beneficial. Whether a subject matter relates to the physical world like geology and biology, or if the subject governs our practices like justice and philosophy, all subjects are equally God’s creations. All subjects are created for man’s benefit, as the greatest minds have always taught. We need to get passed our emotional reluctance to Bible’s laws, and view it on par with science. To be happy, we follow natural law and don’t defy it; leaping from a cliff or injecting poison leads to death. Just as defying nature law has consequences, ignoring God’s lessons for attaining happiness too ends in dissatisfaction and unhappiness. King Solomon’s book Ecclesiastes (Koheles) is this exact point. He studied human happiness and found that human emotions lead to poor decisions that offers no happiness. While following God’s Bible directs man not only to the most harmonious life, but Bible’s wisdom is startling and satisfying.
Just as God’s physical creation benefits man, His Bible which teaches psychology, philosophy, ethics and human perfection also targets human benefit. But benefit is only one purpose. Physical creation and Bible also bear God’s brilliance, both of which man is equally enamored. God designed physical creation and Bible in a manner where our exploration uncovers infinite wisdom. Such study offers man the greatest enjoyment. Great thinkers like Maimonides, Rashi and countless sages spent their lives studying Bible and Talmud. They found complete fulfillment in exploring the depth of Torah wisdom. Bearing this in mind will fuel our impetus to uncover brilliance within God’s Bible, driving us to be dissatisfied with mediocre and infantile Biblical explanations. Just as we would not accept a theory of “accidental arrangement” to explain the perfectly complimentary systems within the body (circulatory, respiratory, digestive, etc.) we must equally not accept childish, mystical or simple Biblical explanations. Bible and science are not simple, but are precisely designed. I will now give you an example of Bible’s astonishing wisdom. It is amazing.
The Red Heifer
Burning the Red Heifer is a “chok” (Biblical statute), which is misunderstood as a law bereft of reason. On the surface, burning a cow of a certain color seems quite odd, and even primitive. Rashi appears to comply with this sentiment that a chok is without reason:
Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel saying, “What is this command and what is the reason for it?” Therefore it is written ‘chukas’: “A decree from before Me (says God) and you have no permission to be suspect about it [to find a flaw]." (Rashi on Num. 19:2)
A simple reading of Rashi would imply not to think into this law. But we must realize that God’s plan behind His 2 realities: the natural world and Bible.
His universe reveals brilliance: in material substance itself, in its designs, and mostly in natural law. This indicates God’s desire to share His wisdom with beings that can perceive it. All God’s acts and creations contain the greatest wisdom. And one of the most astounding creations is the human intellect. Therefore, to suggest that chukim (statutes) are bereft of any wisdom, denies this fundamental that God permeates all with His wisdom, as He desires man to derive great joy by appreciating His wisdom. Both, nature and Bible were designed with the intent that man recognize the Creator’s brilliance in both.
Rabbi Israel Chait once distinguished between mitzvah and a chok. Mitzvah is a law which a person would arrive at with his own thinking, such as murder and stealing. But chok is a law that man would not arrive at on his own, such as wearing black boxes (tefillin), resting on Sabbath as a way of recognizing God, or laws of kosher. However, this does not mean that these laws do not share the same brilliance as every other law. Chok is distinguished from mitzvah only in the fact that man would not have innovated such a structure, but not that they are bereft of great wisdom. What then is the reason behind the Red Heifer? Rabbi Israel Chait taught that a human being cannot state with any certainty what the primary goal is of any mitzvah or chok [only God knows for certain], but we can identify its benefits.
What Rashi means by not being “suspicious” about this law, is that one should not view it negatively or emotionally, or make one’s understanding the determinant of following it. But certainly one should intelligently investigate every law and seek its profound ideas, just as one seeks wisdom in nature. We learn that King Solomon knew the reasons for all laws—including chukim—except for some element of the Red Heifer. That means that he understood the ideas contained all other chukim. Thus, chok—a statute—has reasons like all other laws.
It is also notable that the beginning of Rashi where he says that Satan (i.e., man’s instincts) and the nations of the world (who are lacking understanding) are the only ones that find fault with the Red Heifer. The deduction is that the intellect and the Jewish nation do not find fault with it. This supports the idea that even a chok reveals God’s brilliance. Let’s now understand the Red Heifer.
Mitzvahs with Shared Principles Offer Clues
I understand that a person who speaks evil and degrades others (Lashon Hara) has committed a crime. Thus, remedial action is required. But what about fulfilling a mitzvah of burying the dead: why is there a response of sprinkling the ashes of a Red Heifer on one who was in contact with the deceased? Meaning, why should a mitzvah of burial require a remedial act? Remedy for what? Additionally, why were the Jews in Egypt who fulfilled the command of the Paschal Lamb required to paint their doorposts and lintels with the lamb’s blood? In these two cases, the Jews fulfilled God’s command. A remedial act suggest the presence of some flaw in mitzvah. But that is incoherent. Again, Torah has no remedy for one who prays, or makes a blessing, or performs any other mitzvah: the mitzvah is constructive, and what is positive, cannot require a remedy! Remedy only follows a negative or a destructive matter. Yet, one who buries the dead or sacrificed the Paschal Lamb—God’s commands—requires some additional act. It’s difficult to grasp a remedial need for a mitzvah. As always, God’s generous clues are found in all mitzvahs.
When burning the Red Heifer into ashes, the Torah commands us to throw into its flames a cedar branch, a hyssop plant, and a red string. Very unusual. Ibn Ezra writes:
This [the cedar, hyssop and red string] is just like the leper, and there I hinted to a principle (Ibn Ezra, Num. 19:6).
Ibn Ezra is referring to his commentary on Leviticus 14:4:
Behold, the leper, the leprous house, and the defilement by contact with the dead are related…and behold, they too are similar to the form of the Egyptian Exodus.
Just as the cedar branch, hyssop plant, and the red string are remedial for one who was in contact wit a dead person (Red Heifer), Leviticus 14:4 commands that the leper—the speaker of evil—in a remedial practice which also include these same three items. Nowhere else in Torah are these found. Quite intriguing! What’s the connection between death and evil speech?
Regarding the leper, two birds are taken; one is killed, and the live bird together with the cedar branch, a hyssop plant, and a red string are dipped in the dead bird’s blood and the live bird is let loose over a field. Regarding the Exodus, Ibn Ezra refers to the practice of dipping the hyssop in the lamb’s blood and painting the doorposts and lintel. Here too the hyssop is used, but we note the omission of the cedar branch and red string.
Ibn Ezra points us to three seemingly unrelated institutions that share identical elements, a cedar branch, a hyssop plant, and a red string. These three are burnt with the Red Heifer, they are bloodied in connection with the leper, but the hyssop alone is used in connection with the Passover Exodus during the plague of the firstborns, as the Torah says:
And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, and dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin; and none of you shall go out of the door of his house until the morning. For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side-posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you (Exod. 12:22,23).
The Rabbis note that the hyssop is the smallest plant, and the cedar is the largest. What is that clue?
My friend and Torah educator Jessie Fischbein said, “Death creates distortions.” I thought about her words and immediately realized she was keying in to the common denominator. All three cases deal with death. The Red Heifer removes ritual impurity from one who was in contact with the dead; the leper’s speech was a crime of character assassination (the Rabbis teach evil speech equates to murder), and the lamb’s blood saved our firstborns from the Plague of Firstborn Deaths. In all three cases, a person was somehow related to death. The fact that all three cases require some remedy, indicate that without that rite, man is left in unacceptable conditions. What are those conditions?
Interesting is that once Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden, God feared he would eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. Therefore God placed cherubs (childlike figures) and a flaming spinning sword to guard the path to the Tree of Life (Gen. 4:24). Meaning, as soon as man sinned and he received the punishment or death, he immediately desired immortality. But God did not allow man to attain immortality through the Tree of Life. Instead, God struck a balance in man’s imagination: he would perceive his youth (cherubs) while also confronting the unapproachable spinning sword which represented his death. God deemed it proper that in place of the extreme which Adam desired—immortality through the Tree of Life—an equilibrium be achieved.
He hath made everything beautiful in its time; also He hath set the world in their heart, so that man cannot find out the work that God hath done from the beginning even to the end (Koheles 3:11).
Ibn Ezra comments, “Everything beautiful in its time” refers to death in old age, while “He hath set the world in their heart” refers to the feeling of immortality. While death is a reality, and man cannot lie to himself that he is immortal, he also cannot face his death daily; it is too morbid. Man requires a sense of permanence if he is to live happily. A balance is again detected in this verse. How does this apply to our three cases?
Death: The Distortion
Why does a person who performs a mitzvah of burying the dead require the ashes of the Red Heifer be sprinkled on him? He did nothing wrong, and in fact, he had no choice but to follow God’s command of burial. Furthermore, what is this strange practice?
It is not only errors or sins that require religious remedial practices, but even positive actions can negatively affect us. Jessie is correct: when one is in contact with the dead, we notice a denial. The tension at funerals evoked by facing one’s own death generates powerful denial. People find funerals difficult, and will laugh hard at the smallest drop of humor: a release of powerful negative emotions. Like Adam, funeral attendees “rush for the door” seeking immortality. But that extreme (the immortality fantasy) is as equally unhealthy as harping on our day of death, however true it is. Contact with the dead creates a denial that must be corrected. We are not allowed to deny our mortality. The “ashes” of the Red Heifer signify that a body—human or animal—is but dust or ashes. The body is not the definition of a human being. When confronting the dead, we must immediately correct our denial of our own mortality by embracing the ashes sprinkled on us, to remind us through proxy, that just as the heifer is but dust, we too ultimately pass on. When faced with death, and we rush to deny it, we must strike a balance.
The one who speaks evil destroys others through character assassination. He did not treasure life, similar to one who murders. In his fantasy alone, through evil speech, he thinks he has “set things aright.” God does not approve of a person venting his aggression. This extreme requires a fix. The evil talker is smitten with leprosy, which Aaron said is like death (Num. 12:12). He must also shave all his head, eyebrows and all hair. Why? One’s identity is very much tied to how he wears his hair, and his personality is expressed with his eyebrows. One would have difficulty distinguishing two people who were both hairless. It is safe to say that God created different hair colors and different hairstyles so people are distinguished. Now, when the leper is shaven and has no more hair just like infants at birth, his identity is lost to a great degree. His disregard of another person through his evil speech, is cured by his experiencing a loss of his own identity. This is compounded by the law that he must move outside of society.
In Egypt, the Jews sinned through idolatry. Through the Plague of the Firstborns of those Egyptians and Jews who worshipped the lamb, sin generated death, and mitzvah (paschal lamb sacrifice) sustained life. The blood on the doorpost, through which the Destroyer might enter, focussed the dwellers on the truth that worshipping the deity of Egypt caused death, and our mitzvah of the destruction of the deity secured our salvation. The doorpost of the home, through which the Destroyer might enter was the optimal location for all to ponder the absolute truth that the lamb: idolatry is absolutely false.
Extremes are Sinful
Death is too morbid to face daily. But immortality too is false. The Rabbis teach the hyssop and the cedar represent two extreme poles of a spectrum: the small and the large in plant life. Sforno teaches the harm of living at the extremes of any attitudinal spectrum is expressed through these two species and the red string that represents sin. (The objects could have been a large and small rock, but something had to be used.) If one is too courageous or too cowardly, he cannot act properly at the appropriate time. A miser and spendthrift, or a sad or an elated person…any extreme is improper. King Solomon teaches that there is a time for every attitude (Koheles 3), meaning there are times not to follow that attitude. Thus, remaining at the pole of any spectrum is harmful.
The Red Heifer teaches that denial of death or embracing death—either extreme—is sinful. The evil talker’s carelessness for another person is countered by his reduction of identity. But just as the Red Heifer’s ashes are remedial, and not to be focused on as a permanent ends, the evil talker too must regrow his hair. A remedial rite is temporary by nature, just enough medicine to cure the disease and redirect the person back to an equilibrium. We now appreciate how these seemingly out-of-place plants point to a fundamental lesson and remedy.
But why is the hyssop alone used in connection with the Paschal Lamb? This is because there is no extreme in this case from which we must bounce back. Here, the death of the Egyptian deity is an absolute truth: idolatry is absolutely false. Thus, there is no lesson of two harmful extremes, as is so regarding the Red Heifer and the leper. And our fear of death has been calmed by the lesson that sin brings death, whereas mitzvah secures life. The purpose of painting the doorposts with blood has been explained.
Ibn Ezra teaches us that death affects man uniquely, it requires a unique address, and there are a few related Torah cases that share a bond, indicated by the use of the same three species. Proximity to death frightens man, causing him to flee to the opposite pole of immortality, but this extreme is false. Death is also used regarding the leper where he initially had disregard for life; he must be bent back to the other extreme where “he” loses his identity. But why did God choose the phenomenon of death per se to teach the harm of extremes? I feel this is due to the nature of the immortality fantasy…
Immortality: The Most Primary Drive
Rabbi Israel Chait taught that King Solomon’s work, Koheles, is based on this fantasy. Meaning, all of man’s drives depend on the immortality fantasy. Man would not fantasize about any pleasure, plan, or sense any ambition, if he truly felt he was going to die. Under every emotion lies the feeling of immortality. Rabbi Chait wrote as follows:
“One generation passes, and another generation comes; but the Earth abides for ever (Koheles 1:4).”
The Rabbis teach, “A person does not die with half of his desires in hand. For he who has a hundred, desires to make of it two hundred.” This means that the fantasy exceeds reality. King Solomon addresses one of the two fantasies that drive people. One fantasy is regarding objects or possessions. The second fantasy deals with man’s feeling of permanence. Man’s fantasies make sense, but only if he’s going to live forever. An idea has two parts: 1) the idea itself, and 2) the emotional effect of the idea. Every person knows the idea that he or she will die. But the emotional effect of death is usually denied. This enables man to believe his fantasy is achievable. It is impossible to live without the fantasy of immortality. It expresses itself one way or another.
The meaning behind this verse is that the average person looks at life as the only reality. He cannot perceive himself as a single speck in a chain of billions of people and events, where he plays but a minuscule role, and passes on. Any feeling man has of greatness comes from the feeling of immortality. Immortality never reaches into lusts; only ego. Here, King Solomon places the correct perspective before us. We look at the world as starting with our birth, and as dying with our death. As soon as one sees that his life is nearing its end, he cannot enjoy things anymore. The enjoyment of things is tied to the belief of an endless lifetime in which to enjoy them. Man’s attention is directed primarily toward his well-being. If a life-threatening situation faces man, this is the most devastating experience; everything else doesn’t make that much difference to him. Once a person faces death, all fantasies of pleasures don’t carry much weight. Rashi says on this verse, “Who are those that exist forever? They are the humble ones that bow down to the ground.” Rashi means there is in fact an eternity: this is for righteous people—tzadikim—expressed as those who humble themselves, “bowing to the ground.” The soul of the tzaddik will endure forever.
As man is most excited about his mortality, and is driven primarily by the immortality fantasy, it is most appropriate that God teaches man not to follow his extreme tendencies in this area.
Death is disturbing, but we cannot deny it. The Red Heifer’s ashes remind us that our physical life is not permanent: we all return to dust and ashes. We need this reminder when we come in contact with the dead: a traumatic moment in which we deny our own mortality. We also cannot disregard the life of another through evil speech. If we do, we have gone to another harmful extreme of degrading others to raise ourselves, so shaving our hair reduces our identity, temporarily, to help us bounce back to a correct equilibrium. God signaled the sinful nature of extremes using plants of extreme size differences, and including the “red” thread that signifies their sinful extremes. Torah refers to sin as red.
We are again awed by the perfection and structure of the Torah, where religious practice is designed to perfect man’s flaws. Whether we sin by evil speech, or are negatively affected by a mitzvah of burial or the Paschal Lamb, God includes remedial acts that guide us on a life of truth. Thank you again Jessie for directing me to this fundamental.
Bible and Science are equally real and valid, offering equal brilliance and fulfillment.
 On Yom Kippur, the red string represented the Jews’ unforgiven state. And when it turned white, it indicated God’s forgiveness. Torah verses too refer to sin as red: “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the Lord; though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool (Isaiah 1:18).”
 Maimonides’ Laws of Character Traits addresses this topic.
 Koheles Rabbah 1:13
 Gen. 18:27
 Isaiah 1:18, Rashi on Num 19:22