The rite of Parah Aduma or Red Heifer and the laws spiritual purity are discussed at length in this week’s Torah portion. Click here to read the text. This portion offers a window into the Biblical view of the healer and the one in need of healing. As healers and as individuals in need of healing it makes sense to consider what we can take away from this parsha. Here’s four reflections which seem evident:
1) Being a healer requires sacrifice. Traditionally, we consider the Parah Aduma to be an inexplicable contradiction. The one who is tamay (traditionally translated in English as impure) becomes tahor (traditionally translated in English as pure) through the agency of a priest who then becomes tamay himself. The uninitiated ask how can that be; how can ‘medicine which cures one person make another sick’?. As a healer however I’ve realized that there is no contradiction. Empathy and caring require that I enter into the personal misery of each and every client. And going in there will not leave me unscathed (unless I don’t care or am too afraid to care). My faith, my health, my finances, my joy, and my serenity are constantly on the line in my work. That’s why I often find myself saying that this work is not for the faint of heart.
2) Healers must care for themselves. The priest administering the ashes of the Parah Aduma must immerse himself in a mikvah of water and wait till night fall to become pure again. This is the Torah’s way of telling us healers to rejuvenate our souls. Working with the despairing, the frightened, the addicted, and the confused I must have a ‘place’ where I go to replenish myself.
3) Commitment to healing is a personal choice. Healing begins when the one in need of healing says it does. The Torah tells us that the rites of the Parah Aduma are administered on the third and seventh day. That the Torah leaves out when that set of seven days begin tells us that it’s up to the one in need of healing to decide when his or her process begins, to declare when ‘the first day of the rest of my life is’. By leaving the process up to the individual, the Torah empowers him or her to recast his or her biography as he or she sees fit.
4) Our wounds and shame are part of the journey to healing. The Torah calls the mixture of ashes and water, ‘the waters of sin’ or ‘may chatat’. That’s funny. I would have thought that a better name would be, ‘the waters of purification’. What the Torah is teaching me with these words is even sin, when transformed, is a beloved part of the process of healing.
One event in my career illustrates how the willingness to enter the client’s hell helps. For reasons still unknown to me, a young woman suffering from a terribly unremitting form of anorexia decided that I would be her psychotherapist. I tried to dissuade her as there were far more experienced therapists in our day treatment program. She insisted and figuring that she had been unsuccessfully treated at the best eating disorders clinics in the country, I agreed because I had little to lose. To refuse her would only have meant that she would leave our program and not get treatment anywhere.
So we began.
A rookie to the world of anorexia and eating disorders I pretty much let her set the pace of treatment. Knowing that compulsory treatment had done nothing to help her, my plan was just to let her talk and unfold. As I would come to learn however young people with this kind of anorexia are not big talkers. So I brought up our mutual interests in art (she was an art design student) and pop culture. Every so often I’d throw in a story about my kids and their antics; she seemed to like those a lot.
Of course our therapy was not peaches and cream. The unit nurses and physicians warned me again and again how ill she was; that she could drop dead at any moment. For every meal that she consumed she missed four or five. She worked out for hours and hours. In fact, there were moments when I felt completely hopeless. Without any other ideas (and leery of what my supervisors might suggest) I shared my terror with the client. And then I did something totally off the wall; I put on my kippa (this was not a kippa-friendly hospital) and I prayed aloud to Hashem for guidance. She sat quietly as I quite plainly spoke with Heaven.
I have no idea what this young woman thought of her therapist. At first I worried that I was making a fool of myself. But she kept coming back and in this business coming back is a big victory. She didn’t drop dead as expected. I do know that until our 18 months of work together (which ended when I made aliya in 2002) this woman had not stayed out of a hospital for more than 6 months since she was 12 years old. But I take no credit for this; God designed us so that when we are willing to enter the hell of the other, possibilities happen. All I did was follow the Manufacturer’s instructions
That’s the lesson of the Parah Aduma.