In Chukkat, this week’s Torah portion, we learn about the bizarre rite of the para adumma– red heifer. It was a cow brought to the priests as a sacrifice, and its ashes were used for the ritual purification of Ṭum’at HaMet (“the impurity of the dead”), that is, an Israelite who had come into contact with a corpse. It does seems strange that some how the ash of one dead animal would deal with their fear of having come into contact with a dead body. The notion of a para adumma seems out of step with our lives. How do we make sense of this in the 21st Century?
I was thinking about this question when reading Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. In his bestselling book, Atul Gawande, a practicing surgeon, has fearlessly revealed the struggles of his profession. Here he examines its ultimate limitations and failures – in his own practices as well as others’ – as life draws to a close. And he discovers how we can do better. He follows a hospice nurse on her rounds, a geriatrician in his clinic, and reformers turning nursing homes upside down. There he writes:
Medicine has triumphed in modern times, transforming the dangers of childbirth, injury, and disease from harrowing to manageable. But when it comes to the inescapable realities of aging and death, what medicine can do often runs counter to what it should.
In today’s day we have removed death from our lives. Even doctors, uncomfortable discussing patients’ anxieties about death, fall back on false hopes and treatments that are actually shortening lives instead of improving them. And we the families go along with all of it.
So while it is crazy to imagine how the para adumma removed the impurity of death from the Israelites lives, it seems even crazier that we have feebly tried to removed death itself from our modern lives. We might not find ourselves going to the Priest for a consult, but we should find people who show us how to have the hard conversations about death before it is too late. Gawande writes:
Our ultimate goal, after all, is not a good death but a good life to the very end.