26 June 2020

Parshat Chukat – A Perfectly Red Unblemished Cow

"A perfectly red unblemished cow"

(Numbers 19:2)
Tammuz 4, 5780/June 26, 2020

"This is the statute of the Torah which HaShem commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for yourself a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid." (Numbers 19:2)

Welcome to the mystery and the beauty of the commandment of the red heifer - the innocent, unknowing beast that Torah tells us possesses the power to purify our souls from the contamination of the illusion of the finality of death. Why a red heifer? And how does this work? Torah teaches us in the opening verses of this week's Torah reading, Chukat - The statute (of the red heifer) - many details about the necessary components for making the ashes of the red heifer, (the heifer itself, a branch of hyssop, a piece of cedar wood, wool dyed scarlet and pure, living waters), how and where the kohanim are to slaughter the heifer and prepare its ashes, how the ashes are to be applied in order to achieve purity, and the inexplicable conundrum of why the kohen preparing the purifying ashes, as a result himself becomes impure. But the question as to how this exotic mixture of organic elements prepared under these unique conditions actually achieves what it does - lifting man above the realm of death - Torah is silent upon.

The mystery remains to this day. For four thousand years the finest minds have concerned themselves with this question, and the sages of Israel have shared tremendous insights into the meaning and significance of the ashes of the red heifer, but, ultimately, the inner workings of the red heifer, the reason why, remains opaque, beyond the reach of our human intellect. Even King Solomon, the wisest of the wise, confessed his bafflement: "'All this I tested with wisdom; I said, 'I will become wise,' but it was far from me." (Ecclesiastes 7:23)

Torah defines the red heifer as a chok - a statute - a specific classification of Torah commandment to which logic does not apply. Similar to the dietary laws concerning the clean and unclean animals, we observe these commandments, not because we understand their rationale, their rhyme or their reason, but simply because HaShem, our G-d, has commanded us to do so. To perform these unexplainable Torah statutes, just because, is the highest expression of love for HaShem that can be expressed.

But there is more to the mysterious nature of the red heifer than simply its status as being beyond the reach of the human intellect. In life, the ultimate mystery is death. The seeming finality of death, and what lays beyond death, if anything at all, are mysteries that have been pondered on and talked about and hypothesized on from the moment Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. And yet... what do we really know for certain?

The ashes of the red heifer come along to put death in its rightful place: mysterious? Yes, but not as mysterious as life, itself. Final? Yes, to the body, but not to the soul. Death is an inevitable point on the timeline of our souls' existence, but just that, and nothing more. The red heifer, by purifying our beings of the impurity imparted by contact with a dead corpse, dissipates the ominous burden of death in our lives. It grants us the ability to live beyond death in this life with a comforting wink and a nod to the life to come. Spiritual purification via the sprinkling of the ashes of the red heifer grant us entry into the inner courtyards of the Holy Temple, where G-d's presence is supreme and uncontested, where life, and life only, exists. Within the courtyards of the Holy Temple we experience, in our finite time on this earth, eternal life, and take with us the knowledge of the transcendence of life throughout all of creation and beyond.

But why a heifer, unyoked and unblemished? And why red? Parah adumah - red heifer, in Hebrew - shares the same root - adumah -red - as the Hebrew word for earth - adamah - and the Hebrew word for man - adam - named after the earth from which he was created. In short, for all man's accomplishments, we are of the same substance of all creation, ultimately no better and no worse, as the leveling effect of death teaches us. Our father Avraham said, "Behold now I have commenced to speak to HaShem, although I am dust and ashes." (Genesis 18:27) Death is nothing, if not humbling. This is why our sages tell us that G-d said to Moshe, "take for yourself a perfectly red unblemished cow." For yourself - Moshe - of whom G-d called the most humble man on earth, for only Moshe, in the depth of his unparalleled humility, could grasp the mystery of the red heifer.

The ashes of the red heifer is a lesson in humility, teaching us that the secret of the preeminence of life over death is in our recognition of G-d as our Creator and appreciation for the precious gift of life with which He has blessed us all.

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