Parashat Chukat: The Red Heifer

Rabbanit Naama Frankel, Rosh Beit Midrash of Midreshet Lindenbaum-Lod

We’re in the Book of Numbers, and the Jewish people are closer than ever to the entrance to the Land of Israel. With immense excitement, they stand in formation, according to their flags and tribes – for “… at Hashem’s command shall they travel, and at Hashem’s command shall they camp.” They are moments away from entering the land… but it was not to be. Like any other maturation process, all the more so when an entire nation is maturing… there are crises. The nation’s faith has fractured, and those fractures must heal slowly.

Inferno. Greed. Spies. Korach. Complaints. Bitterness. Great difficulty…

Some commentators would claim that a “short circuit” had occurred in the people’s faith in Moshe, and in their faith in Hashem.

Others would say that suddenly, a certain understanding had set in: that everything depended on the people, and now, the people were responsible for building and leading. The people must fight and work diligently… This understanding, which isn’t easy to digest, also leads to crisis.

The first two years in the desert take up the first ten chapters of the Book of Numbers. Suddenly, when we reach chapter 20, we skip forward to the fortieth year. Thirty-eight years have gone by, and we haven’t a clue about what happened during that time. All we know is that the generation that had been slaves in Egypt would perish in the desert, and that a new generation would rise up.

Parashat Chukat occurs between the second and the fortieth year, with the command of the red heifer. When we reach this point, we find a different generation. Unlike the previous one, which was constantly skeptical, this generation had started believing in itself. It’s a generation that was going through a process, and grieving the loss of its leaders, Aaron and Miriam, moved by a profound recognition of who these personalities were for them. It’s a generation of brave warriors, one that understands that it holds the keys to its future. It fights King Sichon.  It’s a generation that sinned, is punished, and takes responsibility for its actions through the “copper snake”.

Let’s take a moment to understand why the passages on the red heifer are located directly between these two generations.

Verse 2 of chapter 19 of the Book of Numbers states the following: “This is the ritual law that Hashem has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.”

This commandment is well-known. We are to take a red heifer, burn it, and use its ashes to produce a liquid that would purify an individual of the greatest impurity of all. The impurity incurred by coming into contact with a corpse.  

We could argue that the reason this subject is located at this point in the text is that in Parashat Korach, which we read last week, we read of halachot meant to fortify our “safeguarding of the Tabernacle”, and the commandment of the red heifer is concerned with safeguarding the purity of the Tabernacle.

Another possibility is to regard this passage as an introduction to future chapters, in which the nation becomes impure due to coming into contact with corpses, before entering the Land of Israel, after the death of Miriam and Aaron, and the imminent wars of conquest that could cause them to touch dead bodies.

We might also argue that both possibilities are correct, and that this parasha serves a bridge between the impurity of the dead bodies of those who left Egypt, who died in the desert, and the dead of the future, which we will encounter during the fortieth year. The commandments concerning the red heifer, which teach us how to purify ourselves of the impurity of death and restore the purity of life, lift us out of this reality and instill hope, moments before we enter the land.

Not all commandments merit this special appellation – “This is the ritual law…”. If we revisit the commandment itself, we would immediately recall the words of our sages, quoted by Rashi:

“What is this command and what reason is there for it’, it (Scripture) therefore uses the term ‘chuka‘ (חקה) in this regard, implying: It is an decree from before Me; you have no right to criticize it” (Yoma 67b; cf. Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 7).

In other words, according to Rashi, this commandment is considered an “ordinance of the law”, since the very foundation for the existence of the entire Torah is full faith in Hashem, and accepting His words without question.

What is it, then, about this commandment? We know that thanks to this commandment, a person who had experienced the greatest possible defilement – impurity caused by contact with a corpse – can be purified and reenter the Tabernacle.

HaKuzari teaches us that all impurities have one thing in common – death. Leprosy occurs when one of the afflicted person’s organs dies, to some extent. Likewise, sperm departing from the body and losing the potential to produce new life is also a form of death. This obviously applies to the case of impurity caused by contact with a corpse.

We can see that all impurities distance us from certain things. Some impose a distance between people and the Tabernacle, while others impose a distance between people and the rest of society, or even between a husband and wife living in the same house. Impurity keeps people away from intimacy. It distances them from their closest and highest connections.

The red heifer purifies those defiled through contact with the dead. It brings with it a new hope and life – and it must be perfect. Rashi interprets this as follows:

“Perfect” — in allusion to the Israelites who were perfect but through it (the calf) became morally maimed: let this perfect animal come and atone for them so that they may regain their state of perfection.”

The Sin of the Golden Calf still lingers in the background. Later, Rashi will tell us:

“This is like a handmaid’s child that defiled the king’s palace. They said: Let the mother come and wipe up the excrement. Similarly here: since they became defiled by a calf, let its mother (a cow) come and atone for the calf.”

This link between the Sin of the Golden Calf and the red heifer isn’t incidental. Even though Rashi believes that this is an ordinance that has no logical reason, and that we are required to carry it out without understanding it, he also finds a link between it and the great sin that occurred moments before the Torah was given. The Golden Calf isn’t meant to provide a rationale for the commandment of the red heifer. Instead, it is there to teach us that the people sinned because they weren’t able to cope with the unknown and with things they didn’t understand, “for that man Moshe, who brought us from the land of Egypt—we do not know what has happened to him.” When the Israelites follow the commandments concerning the red heifer, they are rectifying the sin of the Golden Calf and proving to themselves and Hashem that we know how to live our lives and keep the Torah’s commandments, even when we don’t understand them.

The red heifer is what purifies us, because of the simple and unquestioned faith it exemplifies – that it personifies proximity and belonging. This is the simple, innocent faith that the spies and those who complained at the beginning of Numbers lacked. There was still hope that the people entering the land would internalize this faith, taking it into the deepest reaches of their souls. When an impure individual goes through a process of purification, he or she demonstrates faith and perfect love, which makes it possible to achieve intense proximity later, bringing entire worlds into existence.


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