Biblical Logotherapy


This week’s Torah portion discusses one of the most bizarre and indecipherable rituals in the Torah: parah aduma, which is the ritual of purifying a person who has come into contact with a dead body. During the ritual of parah aduma, the Kohen slaughters a red cow that has never born a yoke and then burns the carcass along with cedar, hyssop and a crimson substance until it has been reduced to ashes. The ashes are then mixed with water and sprinkled on the person who has come in contact with death, thus rendering him pure.

This strange ritual, which in some aspects seems almost pagan, can be interpreted and understood metaphorically as a cathartic, therapeutic process, one meant to help a mourner overcome grief. Each physical step in the parah aduma ritual also works as a symbol that taps into the subconscious, intangible experience of death.

To begin the ritual, the first requirement is the red cow.

The living red cow embodies an abstraction: literally and symbolically. The cow stands in for the life force vanquished; it represents vitality, procreation and energy, as does its red color, a color associated with blood, the medium of life. Because the cow has never born a yoke, its death is untimely — it has not yet contributed to or affected the world. The parallel for a person would be a death that occurs without fulfilling one’s goals and or realizing one’s potential.

The substances burned with the cow also have symbolic meaning. In biblical times, cedar and hyssop stood for the two poles of the social gamut: the wealthiest and the poorest, the mightiest and the weakest. Turning all these elements to ashes suggests that no one can escape death. The burning of cedar and hyssop together with the parah aduma symbolizes utter destruction, the extermination of the entire gamut of existence. The cedar and hyssop also suggest that death is both a physical and a social phenomenon. This message assists the mourner in coming to terms with grief, indicating that along with the physical loss, there has been a loss of social bonds, of human connection. The symbolism of the parah aduma ritual reflects the complexity of the mourner’s feelings of loss. Through the ritual, the mourner’s need to grieve is acknowledged.

Grief can breed devastating results when not addressed appropriately. A mourner might question the purpose of his life and the worthiness of his actions; he can slip into the mode of thinking typified in phrases such as "My life is meaningless" and "I am nothing."

From there the road can be very short to suicidal tendencies and even to violent criminal acts against others, because the logical correlative to "I am nothing" is "you are nothing." Once life is meaningless, whatever damage a person causes to others is insignificant. In fact, such injury to others can, sadly, serve a cathartic purpose; as a person subjects another to anger and violence, he renders the other person as helpless and ineffective as he feels himself.

This negative disposition that results from death and loss is the reason for the mourner’s impurity for seven days. The impurity is a spiritual one that calls the mourner’s attention to the dangers, the precariousness, of his situation. But, simultaneously, the condition of impurity and separation allows the mourner an opportunity to express and experience his emotions and to heal.

On the third day of this healing process, the mourner is brought to the priest, and he returns on the seventh day for a second session. In the Torah’s description of these meetings between mourner and priest, a surprising but subtle linguistic shift occurs. The remainder of the red cow, which was initially referred to as "ashes" (efer in Hebrew), is now referred to as dust (afar in Hebrew). While only one letter has changed in the text, the symbolic meaning of the two words is completely different. The word "afar" in reference to death, transports us directly to the verse: "for you are dust and to dust you shall return." The word dust reminds the mourner that life is ephemeral and that death is inevitable. It also reminds him of the cycle of life: in the words of Rabbi Akiva, "Those living will die, those who were not born yet will be born."

Finally, the parah aduma ritual emphasizes and expands on this cyclical notion in a way clearly evident to ancient Israelites who lived in an agrarian society. While nothing can grow in ashes, dust can definitely serve as a fertile soil. A seed, buried in the dust, will resurrect as a plant.

Similarly, the mourner is encouraged to summon all his energy and to come back to life with energy and vitality. This concept is symbolized by the last step in the process, the pouring of fresh, living water, mayim hayyim, on the parah aduma’s dust. The positive power of life, contained in the water, will overcome the destructive power of death. Even though the loss that comes with a death will not be forgotten, life will be resumed with an emphasis on the positive experiences of the past and on the abundance and richness of the life we have lived and will live.

Haim Ovadia, rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, can be reached at haimovadia@hotmail.com.

Schwarzenegger’s Kindest Un-Cut


Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger doesn’t know it, but his recent
gesture to reverse planned cuts for the disabled was the greatest memorial
tribute to my brother, Danny. This week, we observed Danny’s shloshim, the
traditional 30 days after the death of a loved one.

Danny didn’t have a political bone in his body. No lawyer
ever represented him. He wasn’t a member of any union, wasn’t even able to
work. He had no wife and no children to care for him. He was just one of the
faceless, nameless disabled you walk by on your way to work or at the grocery
store. But to us, and now to our governor, my brother was not faceless or
nameless. He was a man with “special needs.”

Danny didn’t arrive in the City of Angels brimming with
optimism like so many. He was forced here four years ago when our ailing mother
in Connecticut could no longer care for him. It was an insurmountable
adjustment for a 46-year-old with epilepsy, kidney cancer, malignant melanoma,
some brain damage from prolonged use of anti-seizure medications and many
social issues from periods of isolation. But Danny was able to live a life with
dignity in our Golden State benefiting from many of the programs that escaped
the guillotine recently. And we cannot settle for anything less for the
thousands with special needs like Danny or worse.

Danny attended the Valley Storefront Adult Day Health Care
Center in North Hollywood, a full-day care program where he received a
nutritious and kosher lunch and badly needed medical attention and physical
therapy.

He was a client of the North Los Angeles County Regional Center,
which provided him with a devoted counselor and advocate and all the basic
human services that the Lanterman Act says he has a right to.

He lived in an assisted-living facility, where he was given
a private room and treated with respect. Prior to that, when he was physically
able, he lived in a group home with five other men like him and a devoted
caregiver.

Danny had the best medical care this city has to offer,
including a top general practitioner, neurologist, nephrologist, oncologist and
other specialists. And he could not pay for any of it.

He achieved a great deal of mobility with Access Paratransit,
which thereby increased his contact with the outside world.

It was back in April that we received the news that Danny
would finally encounter the ultimate disability, inoperable cancer of the
liver. His death sentence was carried out seven months later. But, even in the
process of death, he received fine medical care by the Cedars-Sinai Hospice
Program, which is following up with counseling for my family to try to deal
with this tragedy.

Danny Solomon died at the age of 50, with $20 in his pocket
— part of the $50 I had given him a few days earlier. That was the sum total of
his estate. But the level of care that he received and the dignity that marked
his final days are something every California resident should be proud of.
Thank you, governor, in Danny’s name and in his memory for the compassion you
showed. Â


Ron Solomon is executive director of the West Coast Friends of Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

‘O.C.’: How a Young Creator Spells Success


Josh Schwartz doesn’t sleep much on Tuesday nights anymore.

That’s the night his new show, "The O.C.," airs on FOX, and the weekly insomnia awaiting the public’s response has become an occupational hazard ever since.

Over coffee early one morning, Schwartz, the 27-year-old who’s being touted as the youngest person ever to create his own television network drama, discussed his recent starburst since the show debuted in August. "We’re starting to settle now," he said, looking disheveled by design in vintage green T-shirt, powder blue cords and sneakers.

The Jewish writer and executive producer has cause to relax, as Fox just picked up a full season of his teen drama — "it’s not a soap" — about a tony Newport Beach gated community. While the show is currently on hiatus for Major League Baseball playoffs and the World Series, it is set to resume on Oct. 30. — hopefully resuming its summer spot as the highest-rated drama with teens, as well as pulling in the key coveted demographic of 18-49-year olds.

"The O.C." is centered on the Cohen family and Ryan, the troubled teen from Chino they adopt (Benjamin McKenzie). Schwartz has infused a little bit of Jewish soul into the predominantly whitebread "O.C.," with Sandy Cohen (Peter Gallagher), a liberal Jewish pro-bono lawyer, and his son, Seth, a nerdy and sarcastic high school senior (played by the unlikeliest of geeks, Adam Brody). Kirsten Cohen (Kelly Rowan) is the WASPy mom who has garnered them entree into this exclusive world, as she has the money from working in her father’s real estate development business.

So far, hints at the characters’ Jewishness have been limited to throwaway lines. Explaining why he can’t get along with Kirsten’s uber-WASP dad when he comes to visit, Sandy says, "I’m still Jewish." Seth makes reference to studying the Talmud and to his Jewfro in two recent episodes, and Schwartz has promised a season finale involving "Chrismakah," wherein Ryan has to make the little money he has to purchase one gift last for eight.

Explaining this choice, Schwartz said, "For Sandy it just felt like one more thing to add…. But it felt like it was a natural thing for his character, coming from his background and how it would make him sort of feel a little bit even more out of place in Newport, and for Seth, as well."

Much of the basis for ‘The O.C.’ is autobiographical, Schwartz told the Journal. Raised Reform in Providence R.I. to parents who were Jewish toy inventors, Schwartz says he based his characters on people he knew in Providence or at USC, where he majored in film. Of all the "O.C." characters, he says Seth Cohen’s take on the world is closest to his own: "Sort of a smart ass, but with an underlying sweetness."

"I remember when I was a kid I was always looking for someone like that, that was cool, to kind of get behind, and hopefully Seth Cohen will be that to inspire more kids to be proud of their background," Schwartz said, "But it’s not gonna be a Star of David burning on the Cohens’ front lawn or anything inflammatory like that. I think we just want to sort of weave it into the background of these characters and have it be part of their personal culture."

Brody, for one, is pleased with this decision. As a secular Jewish actor playing a Jewish character, he said, "I like the way Josh does it. It’s self-deprecating. I never want to be on ‘Seventh Heaven,’" he said, referring to the moralizing WB show about a reverend’s family.

For Jews living in Orange County, it’s doubtful whether being Jewish makes them feel out of place. "I think if Jews feel isolated, they isolate themselves," said Elsa Goldberg, 39, from Laguna Beach. She said there were many Jewish organizations available to people looking to meet fellow Jews.

She finds other aspects of the show off the mark as well, a sentiment expressed by quite a few who live in the O.C. There is, however, at least one thing she thinks Schwartz got half right. "I think that there’s probably a lot of intermarriage out here," she said, "but Jews always seem to find each other."

Schwartz isn’t reading all of the criticism, but he admits to perusing the message boards online. "You gotta check in," he says, "and I find if anybody starts to rag on a certain element of the show then I have to go in and make fun of it in the next episode…. But it’s interesting … as soon as the show airs, five minutes later you can go online and see what people thought about the show and that’s really exciting. Then sweat over it next week."

Despite being want for sleep, Schwartz doesn’t seem to be sweating too much at the criticism, nor the pressure of all his new responsibility. He’s mostly just grateful. "It’s really exciting and I just try not to blow it. Just try not to have too many people hate you for not appreciating it. Because I do appreciate it."

"The O.C." summer season runs on FOX in October if the baseball playoffs end early. The new season will begin on Thursday, Oct. 30 at 9 p.m.