Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1)
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin
Efrat, Israel – “This is the statute of the law which God commanded, saying, ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer’” (Num. 19:1–2).
One of the most profound mysteries of the Bible is the rite of the red heifer, called a chok (statute) because it belongs to the group of divine decrees which human logic cannot penetrate.
We must be mindful of the fact that all other impurities other than a death impurity find their purification by the defiled individual’s immersing himself or herself in a mikveh, a gathering of freshly running spring water or specially collected life-giving rainwater; in effect, in all these instances, the defiled individual actually purifies him- or herself!
Only in this rite of the red heifer does the kohen, representing God Himself, effectuate the purification. It is as though the Torah is teaching that we can save ourselves from many of our weaknesses, we can rise above many of our temptations, but only God can ultimately redeem us from death.
And from this perspective, the symbolism of the red heifer ritual begins to make sense. A heifer is the consummate symbol of life, the cow’s mother-milk serving as the universal expression of maternal nurturing of her young; red is likewise the color of blood, and blood is the life-force, the very nefesh of the living organism.
However, although human beings come in various shapes, sizes, personalities, and powers – they can be as tall and proud as the cedar tree and as mean and humble as the hyssop plant – the angel of death ultimately conquers them all, because the scarlet thread of human sin condemns each of us to the common destiny of mortality.
Following the sacrifice, the personage of purity gathers the ashes of the remains, mixes them with the life-giving waters of the divine and, born-again, purified life emerges even from the surrealistic specter of death itself. Inherent in this symbolism is that historic Israel – mother nurturer of the continuity of humanity by means of the Abrahamic “compassionate rightness and moral justice” which Israel taught and must continue to teach – is destined to be slaughtered, but will always rise again to life and to the fulfillment of her mission and destiny.
This symbolism of the red heifer assumed new significance for me after a trip to Berlin I took several years ago. While there, I visited the Holocaust Memorial at the very center of the city, not far from the last bunker from which the “mad Führer” (may his name be blotted out) committed suicide.
One descends into a netherworld of hell, where pictures and stories of Holocaust victims evoke their life experiences and all of their future potential that was snuffed out, inexplicably and cruelly torn asunder from the tree of life by monstrous and subhuman hands.
I stumbled away from the experience feeling as though I had just awakened from a horrific nightmare. The symbolism of the monuments continued to haunt me months after I returned to Efrat; after all, those who lost loved ones in the Holocaust don’t even have graveside monuments to weep over.
Each empty stone screams out with any name, with every name, with my name, and with my children’s names, because a part of each human being was killed in those death camps whose perpetrators attempted to destroy every last vestige of humaneness.
But I also came away from the experience feeling cheated by the memorial. Something was missing, the essence was missing, the victorious ending was missing. Because, you see, the Jewish people won the war which Hitler tried to wage against us.
Yes, he succeeded in destroying six million of us, but as he records in Mein Kampf, he wasn’t waging a war against six million Jews. He was waging a war against the last Jew, against Judaism, against what he called a slave morality of compassionate righteousness and moral justice, of sensitive concern for the weaker vessels, of a God of ultimate power who insists upon human protection of the powerless. And in that war, Hitler failed!
Yes, we won that war. Alas, the brilliantly alive “red heifer,” a metaphor for the Jewish people, a people who nurture the world with the milk of morality of the Ten Commandments and the milk of human kindness of “You shall love the stranger” and “You shall love your neighbor like yourself” was, to a large extent, tragically and inexplicably slaughtered beyond the “human encampment” in Auschwitz and Treblinka.
But the Almighty God, the “Personage of Purity” Himself, gathered the ashes, Himself mixed them with living waters of rebirth, and Himself transformed those ashes into the fertile soil of the recreated sovereign State of Israel.
And the “Personage of Purity” Himself mixed the ashes with the life-giving wellsprings of Torah, our tree of eternal life, and in addition to our national physical being, likewise revived our spiritual being, and Torah centers to an unprecedented and unparalleled degree all over the world!