Wednesday, March 07, 2007

The Mystery of The Red Heifer

This week, in addition to Parashat Ki Tissa, we also read "Parashat Parah", the section in the Book of Numbers that describes the ritual of the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah). This ritual involved the slaughter of a Red Heifer outside of the Temple, and the subsequent reduction of its flesh and entrails to ashes. The ashes of the heifer were then combined with several other ingredients, including cedar wood, a branch of hyssop and a scarlet string. A person who came into contact with a dead body - whether at a funeral or otherwise - had to be sprinkled with this formula on the third and seventh days of his impurity before immersing in a mikveh, or ritual bath. Only then could such an individual regain admission to the Tabernacle or Holy Temple.

Interestingly, the Torah opens its presentation of the Red Heifer with the phrase "zoht huqat Hatorah" ("this is the statute of the Torah"). The Rabbis explain that the Red Heifer is the quintessential "hoq", or mysterious commandment, whose rationale is hidden from us. Indeed, it embodies a classic paradox; although the ashes of the Heifer serve to purify a person who has contracted impurity from the dead, they render anyone else who handles them impure! So they have contradictory effects, purifying and defiling simultaneously. Because of this and other unusual features of the process, the Red Heifer ritual is perhaps the most enigmatic commandment in the entire Torah. In fact, the Rabbis tell us that King Solomon grasped the reason behind every one of the 613 mitsvot, except for the Parah Adumah.

There is one fundamental questions that we can ask about the Parasha of the Red Heifer: Why did the Torah see fit to establish this particular institution as the epitome of a "hoq"? Why did Hashem choose to make this commandment - a purification ritual - so very mysterious and counterintuitive?

In order to gain a deeper insight into the significance of the Red Heifer, let us consider the fascinating comments of Rashi, who draws from a Midrash cited by Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan. In essence, Rashi interprets the ritual of the Red Heifer as an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf. Along these lines, he proceeds to identify several fascinating parallels between the Heifer and the Calf. For example, the Torah states:

"Take for yourselves a perfectly red cow, that has no blemish..."

Rashi comments:

"Take for yourselves", from your own (communal) funds. Just as you gave of your golden rings for the [Golden] Calf, so too shall you provide its atonement.

"A red cow", this is analogous to a maidservant's son who soiled the king's palace. They said, 'let his mother come and clean the dirt.' Similarly, let the [red] Cow come and atone for the Calf.

"Red." As the verse says, 'if you have become red like crimson,' because sin is called red.

"A perfectly red cow"
. To symbolize Israel, who were first perfect but then became defective. Let the cow come and atone for them.

Rashi then goes on to explain numerous other details of the Parah Adumah ritual in the same spirit (see his comments on Numbers 19:22 at length).

Overall, Rashi makes a convincing case for positing the existence of a symbolic relationship between the sin of the Golden Calf and the preparation of the Red Heifer. Be that as it may, there is a major problem with this equation. After all, the Red Heifer is not a sacrifice, and is not presented as a vehicle of atonement at all! The Red Heifer is never associated with any transgression - its ashes are used to purify individuals from contact with a corpse, not from the defilement of sin.

Moreover, people usually encounter the dead in the context of a mitsvah, such as while present at a funeral or burial service. Such attendance is meritorious and should not require them to seek expiation or forgiveness afterward. Yet, despite their innocence, these individuals - because of their contact with a corpse - must now be purified through the ashes of the Red Heifer. It seems clear that this process of removing defilement has nothing to do with the comission of any crime. Why, then, does Rashi accept the view that the ritual of the Parah Adumah is meant to atone for the sin of idolatry?

I believe that the link between the Golden Calf and the Red Heifer provides us with a profound insight into human psychology and religious impulses in general. It is part of human nature to have a fear of death, a sense of vulnerability in the face of one's own mortality. Indeed, this anxiety is the basic nucleus from which most religious doctrine and behavior emerge. It is the fear of death and its mystery that propelled primitive man toward two objectives: The creation of elaborate theologies and detailed descriptions of the afterlife that removed it from the frightening category of the "unknown", and the development of complex rituals to ward off the forces of death and destruction that threatened him.

We can see the influence of the fear of death in all religions, ancient and modern. In Egypt in particular, superstition and ritual were almost exclusively concerned with reflection on and preparation for the afterlife. Involvement with the spirits of the dead, construction of huge tombs in which provisions for eternal life would be stored, and sacred literature that expounded upon the experiences of the deceased were the lifeblood of Egyptian religion.

This focus upon death is by no means absent from more modern religions, however. The New Testament abounds with discussions of eternal life, and the quintessential Christian symbol is a man dying, bruised and bloodied, on a cross. The Quran is similarly very detailed in its description of the rewards and punishments that await people in the hereafter.

Not so the Holy Torah. In absolute contradistinction to all other faiths, the Torah does not speak a word about the Afterlife. It provides us with no simplistic solutions to the mysteries posed by life and death. As the Rambam comments in several places, the human mind cannot grasp the concept of purely spiritual existence, and therefore is incapable of imagining what life in the Next World might be like. Anything we say about it, as comforting as it may seem, is either metaphoric or simply incorrect. For this very reason - because life after death is and will always be a mystery that transcends and defies human comprehension - the Torah refuses to offer us platitudes that might sate our curiosity, and requires us instead to make an honest admission of our ignorance in these areas.

The Torah similarly rejects the notion that religious activity should serve as a panacea for our anxieties about the fragility of life. Service of God and preoccupation with death do not mix. Our Kohanim are generally not permitted contact with the dead, and, unlike Catholic Churches that are typically situated directly over the graves of saints, our synagogues are never built even in remote proximity to tombs. Our motivation to study Torah and observe mitsvot is tied to a love of God and His wisdom as we experience it in this world, and should have nothing whatsoever to do with concerns about our fate in the World to Come. Unlike idolatrous religions, our Torah derives its appeal from life, not death.

When a human being is confronted with death, when he comes into contact with a corpse, there is an inevitable psychological impact. His own vulnerability and mortality are thrown into sharp relief. One very natural response is to seek solace in religion, either in the form of simplistic answers and reassurances, or in the form of rituals that offer him a sense of protection and security.

The Torah denies him both of these, condemning them as a reflection of the same primitive impulses that lead most people to idolatry. He is therefore not permitted to offer a sacrifice or even to enter the Temple until he has observed a period of seven days' separation. And during this time he must submit to the bizarre ritual of the Red Heifer - the ultimate acknowledgment of our helplessness in the face of the inexplicable mysteries of death and the hereafter.

We can now understand the relationship that obtains between the Red Heifer and the Golden Calf. An encounter with death has a tendency to make a person susceptible to idolatry, to the search for comforting metaphysical platitudes or magical protective rituals. This feeling of vulnerability and the urgency associated with it were precisely what led the Jewish people to construct and worship the Golden Calf - it provided them with reassurance, however imaginary and meaningless, and assuaged their fears. This incident is the ultimate proof to the kinds of spiritual danger into which this emotional frailty can lead us.

From this perspective, we can also appreciate the famous paradox of the Parah Adumah - namely, the fact that it purifies the defiled while defiling the pure. For someone who has already opened up the Pandora's Box of dealing with the issues and anxieties related to death - he has attended a funeral, lost a relative, or otherwise been faced with loss of life - participation in the ritual of the Red Heifer is a vital therapeutic process. It helps restore a person's humility, honesty and rationality as he struggles with the powerful emotions that have welled up inside him.

By contrast, one who has not had occasion to come into contact with a corpse should not voluntarily divert his mental energy to these complex emotional and existential problems. Such preoccupation can generate confusion, depression and angst, resulting in a waste of valuable time and resources. It would be the equivalent of orchestrating a crisis in order to try and resolve it.

Thus, much like psychoanalytic therapy, the Red Heifer's ashes should be pursued by those who need them, but should be avoided by those who don't. A psychologically healthy person who undergoes psychoanalytic therapy can wind up causing damage to himself by uncovering aspects of his personality he is not prepared to handle. These discoveries may seriously upset his emotional balance and drain his mental energy. Similarly, a "healthy" person who gets involved with the ashes of the Parah Adumah runs the risk of creating problems for himself where none existed before, leaving him "defiled" rather than purified from his experience with them. Hence, they purify the impure, while contaminating those who were pure to begin with!

The Torah, which is a profound system of knowledge and wisdom, demands intellectual honesty and humility from mankind. It does not permit us to indulge in wanton fantasies of immortality and eternal life that are nothing more than the products of our own imaginations. It wishes for us to recognize the reality of our finiteness and to acknowledge that our time here is brief and fleeting. It insists that we accept the inscrutable mysteries of life and death as just that - inscrutable. And, above all, it encourages us to live life nobly and meaningfully in the here-and-now, rather than focusing on what awaits us afterwards.


Josh M. said...

Very nice idea. Thank you.

David Guttmann said...

Excellent. I saw it last week but went through it fast as I was at work. Thanks for reminding me to revisit.

Do tou give these subjects in your speeches? I might consider relocating to Rockville if yes! ;-)

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


Yes, indeed...I first presented this as a Shabbat Derasha at my previous synagogue in Riverdale. It was one of my most popular speeches ever, as far as I can recall. Generated a strong positive response, and much curiosity. I myself was surprised at the impact.

When I came to interview here in Rockville, it was Shabbat Parah, so I used it as my very first address to this community. Needless to say, I got the job, so I guess they liked it. :)

BTW, the great thing about this synagogue is that we have many members who are wonderful real estate agents and enjoy "relocating" people into our community. So whenever you're ready, let me know! ;)

Anonymous said...

rabbi, I am an wonderful real estate agent and enjoy "relocating" people into their homeland. We have many states available from the State of Israel to the State of Hamas to the State of Jordan.

mevaseretzion said...

RJM, very nice. RSRH has a similar (not completely) conception of טומאה and פרה אדומה, which I discuss here:

Daniel G. said...

Hi Rabbi Maroof

Beautiful explanation, thank you for the insight. I just wanted to add that there are 2 chazals which i thought were pertinent to your main idea. The first is by Matan Torah when chazal say that just prior to the building of the calf the bnei yisrael "saw Moshe laying on his deathbed", clearly this indicates a relationship between their tendency to engage in avodah zara and their encounter with Moshe's "perceived" demise. Second, Chazal state the reason why the section of Miriam's death is juxtaposed to Parah Aduma is to teach that just as the Parah Adumah is Mechaper, so too is the death of Tzadikim. I understood this to mean that when a tzaddik dies, it makes one reevaluate his attitude towards religion as a method to secure what his instinctual self views as immortality. It gives an opportunity to realize that being a tzaddik is not a way to escape death, as these tzaddikim did not, but rather, like you mentioned, is only a natural result of love of god. I thought this complemented your idea very well and could explain a more precise relationship between the death of the righteous and Parah Adumah. I would like to know what you think about this. Again, thank you for your beatiful insight into this complex area.

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