Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)
Rabbi David Stav
Parshat Chukat begins with the laws of the parah adumah – the red heifer – including the process required for preparing the purifying waters and the purification ritual itself. The Torah introduces the topic thusly:
This is the law of the Torah. (Bamidbar / Numbers 19:2)
These words evoke an obvious exegetical question: why didn’t the Torah say “This is the law of the red heifer”? After all, the subsequent subject matter consists of the laws of the red heifer, not the entire body of laws in the Torah.
Moreover, if a person touches a dead human body, that person is considered tamei met (impure from death) for seven days. During this time, such a person may not enter the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple), and it goes without saying that the person may not partake of the sacrifices being offered there. The person is re-purified when he is sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, on the third and seventh day of his impure state.
The heifer needed to be of a very rare color – it had to be completely red, and devoid of any black hairs. Furthermore, no yoke may have been placed on the animal. This is no minor achievement in a land in which cows were among the most commonly-used animals for working the fields.
Finding such a heifer was clearly a daunting task, and when it was found, its price soared. Our rabbis tell us that over the hundreds of years that our nation dwelled in its land, the red heifer was only discovered seven times, after which it was slaughtered so that the ashes could be prepared.
Anyone reading this passage for the first time must find it perplexing. And even those who read it year after year may feel uncomfortable when trying to interpret this law. What is this law supposed to be? Why ashes? Why a cow? And why did it need to be red?
We need not feel uncomfortable if we have never managed to understand how – or why – this works. It is one of the most peculiar laws in the Torah, and even our rabbis testified that it is a chok – a law etched in stone – a decision made by God Himself, one that is beyond the grasp of human comprehension. Nevertheless, we will try to make some sense of it all, and assess what lies behind this enigmatic topic.
Two teachings from our Sages will help us understand the subject.
In one teaching, our Rabbis asked: “Why were all of the sacrifices male cows, while this one was female? It can be compared to a maidservant that soiled a king’s abode. The king said, ‘Let its mother come and clean the filth’. This is what the Holy One Blessed Be He said: ‘Let the heifer come and atone for the sin of the calf’” (Bamidbar Rabba 19:8).
According to this Midrash, the burning of the red heifer is somehow linked to the sin of the golden calf and the filth that it produced, and the heifer is now being asked to wipe it away. How does it do that? And what is the connection between these two things?
An explanation is offered in another Midrash:
“Why the red heifer? To atone for the sin that was done with the golden calf. It wasn’t just that sin that was red. All sins are red, so the heifer must be red. And when ashes of the heifer are burnt, they turn white, as it is said: ‘if your sins are red as scarlet, they will become white as snow’… (Yishayahu / Isaiah 1:18).
These two Midrashim point us in the same direction: the sin of the golden calf is the most prominent of all sins, all the more so because it was the first sin committed after the Torah was given at Mount Sinai. It thus serves as a model for other human failings. The essence of this failure is the clinging by people to a material and sensory world: pointing to the calf, the people called out, “These are your gods, O Israel” (Shemot / Exodus 32:4).
A desire to cling to materialism led us to imagining that material objects are what truly matter, while spirituality and the soul are merely an ephemeral phenomenon. An encounter with death might intensify this feeling: when facing death, man senses how transient and arbitrary the physical world is.
Man might, regrettably, come to think that material life is the foundation of our existence in the world, and without the physical component, the world is no longer meaningful. The sense of emptiness one feels when encountering death is what the Torah calls tumah – impurity – and this is what the Torah is trying to eradicate. The red heifer reminds us that dereliction in the world is the product of sin.
Man’s eternal life is shaped by his morals and his soul, and in the image of God that exists in each and every one of us. By burning the red and making it white, we remember that a person can correct failures. Though such amends may not be enough to save a person’s life, the spiritual and moral aspects of the soul are immortal.
This is why the portion begins with the words, “This is the law of the Torah”. This verse isn’t merely discussing the laws of the red heifer. The real topic we are discussing is the essence of human life.
Is that life placed under the control of the “red”, i.e. the material world), or does a person understand that he or she belongs to the realm of the Torah’s timeless values and the eternal Godly spirit embedded within every human being?
Is a person limited by the fleeting physical life of his or her body, or does this spirit allow the person to continue striving to do good, to be righteous, and continue down the path to eternity?
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