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Holy Cow

  • Holy Cow

    Chukat, Numbers 19:1−22:1
D'var Torah By: 

It is the most enigmatic mitzvah in all of Torah: the parah adumah, the "red heifer." If a person comes in contact with a human corpse, she or he must go for ritual cleansing. The "defiled" individual shall then be sprinkled with a concoction made of the mixture of fresh water (literally "living" waters, mayim chayim) and the ashes of a slaughtered and burned "red" cow that had absolutely no blemishes nor ever bore a yoke. But here's the paradox: while the mixture of these "waters of lustration" (mei nidah) cleansed the person who had been rendered ritually impure by contact with a corpse, the individuals who burned the cow, made contact with its ashes, and sprinkled the mixture on the "defiled" person would be rendered impure in the process. In other words, the act of making one person ritually pure makes the purveyor of purity impure.

At the core of all this is the notion of tahor and tamei, "pure and impure." They are states of being, reflective—I believe—of one's bodily relationship to "life" and "not-life." The things that make one "impure" (tamei) are contact with dead animals and dead humans and a number of different types of creeping things; skin diseases involving a mortification of the flesh (tzaraat) and contact with similar growths on inanimate objects; menstruation and emissions of semen; and childbirth. None of these states of being are permanent, but they all require "purification." With the exception of childbirth (which is another of those biblical enigmas), each of these "impurifying" things seems to have to do with not-life, a condition that would disqualify the individual from participation in the life of the holy. And for ancient Israel, nothing was more central than being eligible to be part of the holy community. To do that one had to be ritually pure (tahor)—that is, "of life."

Perhaps to our modern sensibilities these notions of ritual purity and impurity are alien, even alienating. But it is equally possible that our discomfort with such bodily states reflects a disconnection that we would do well to restore, for the Torah seems to be onto fundamental realities of the human condition from which we have distanced ourselves.

Let's be honest. Death is taboo. In fact, virtually all bodily processes are. Yet our ancestors didn't have any problems with addressing the normal fluctuations of life. On the contrary, they saw the guf (body) and n'shamah / nefesh / ruach (life force) for what they are—profound mysteries that bind us to God. Our state of being was the essential component in our covenantal relationship with God. Just as the animal brought for sacrifice had to be without blemish, so for us to partake in the life of the covenantal community of holiness we must be in a state of ritual purity. Our connection with God is a corporate one. We are all in this together. Everyone has to be at their best, physically and spiritually. We have to be fully alive.

Are we any different today? We might not like to speak of bodily emissions, we might not relate to all the behaviors—n'tilat yadayim (washing of the hands before a meal), mikveh (ritual bath), taharah (cleansing of the body before burial)—that accompany the traditions surrounding ritual purity, but we nonetheless live our lives with great attentiveness to our physical and emotional and spiritual states of being. We exercise. We diet. We meditate. We know what it's like to feel "off" and we do whatever we can to get back "on." We just don't necessarily do it within the context of sacred community. But maybe we could learn something from Torah when it comes to this.

The Rabbis identified this chok, "law" (from which the name of this week's portion, Chukat, derives) as one for which a reasonable understanding is humanly incomprehensible. But it really might not be as elusive as we think. Perhaps there is great wisdom and insight in this seemingly bizarre practice. While we might not be on the lookout for red cows in our local pastures (which would prove a waste of time since the destruction of the Temple made this ritual obsolete), I think the underlying dynamics of these "waters of lustration" still speak to us today.

I'm not going to get into the debate on whether or not to immunize our children, but I have always been fascinated by how it is that we protect ourselves by injecting the disease into our bodies, how it is that the poison is the cure. How bacteria protect us. And in a same way, I cannot help but see the parallel with the parah adumah, how it is that the ashes of a dead animal make a corpse-defiled individual ritually pure and, in the process, how the one doing the purifying becomes impure. But even more important, what is essential to this ritual is that the persons doing the "purifying"—the one who slaughters the cow, the one who burns the carcass, the one who gathers the ashes, the one who mixes the ashes, and the one who sprinkles the ashes—are not priests but just members of the community. Indeed, Torah is clear, it is a community-centered ritual: ". . . the waters of lustration shall be kept by and for the community of Israel . . . " (Numbers 19:9). Simply put, this process of transitioning from "not-life" back to "life" is something we do to and for each other. And you know what? We still do it. All the time.

Every time members of our synagogue go into mourning, the community comes out to take on the mourners' state of not-life. We sit with them. We pray with them. We embrace them and hold their hands. And we gently usher them back into life. We bring food to them. We affirm their recitation of Kaddish by saying Amen. Some of us stand with them. Some recite the Kaddish with them. And in so doing we assume—at least in part—their state of not-life. We adjust our daily lives. We accompany them to the cemetery. We surrender our evening activities. We take on their pain. We allow death to enter our state of being. We immerse ourselves in the spiritual waters of life and death. We transform in order to help others transform. We become community.

Which brings us back to the cow. The red cow. It has become a character of intense interest and mystery within the Jewish tradition. Some say it was incredibly rare. Some say it wasn't really red, just brown but without any imperfections (see Mishnah, Parah 2.5). Some say it was a symbol of the original sin of the Jewish people, the Golden Calf (see B'midbar Rabbah, 19.8). I just think it's so obvious that . . . it was a cow. A maternal life-giving creature whose own life force was surrendered so that the community could restore itself from the impurity of not-life. And while I am personally grateful that we have moved on from animal slaughter as a means to ritually find meaning in our lives, I am not willing to lose the meaning our ancestors implicitly understood within the context of these now alien rituals. The great student of religion Huston Smith called them "forgotten truths." 1 Perhaps we would do well to try and remember them. They touch at the very core of our quest for the sanctification of life.

1. Huston Smith, Forgotten Truth: The Common Vision of the World's Religions (New York: HarperCollins, 1976)

Rabbi Steven Kushner is concluding his 35th year as the rabbi of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield, New Jersey.

The Paradoxical Effect of the Red Heifer
Davar Acher By: 
Barry Block

Rabbi Kushner elucidates a great irony: those who prepare the ritual for purification are rendered impure by doing so!

Our commentator Sforno, wrestling with this very problem in medieval Italy, writes, "Torah recommends the golden mean—all extremes are undesirable."1 Drinking a putrid potion of cow's ashes is indeed an extreme measure! Sforno's theory is that courting such danger is required to cure one whose soul is imperiled. A person whose soul is clean, on the other hand, shouldn't go anywhere near that awful brew.

We could compare the red heifer mixture to medical stimulants like Ritalin and Adderall, which have a paradoxical effect on people with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), apparently bringing calm and focus. For those who don't struggle with ADHD, though, these amphetamines are dangerous and sometimes even deadly. Stimulants are an extreme measure, bringing healing to those who need them and harm to those who don't.

Sforno contends that the ingredients mixed with the heifer's ashes represent extremes: "The cedar symbolizes pride, the hyssop, the opposite. The scarlet thread between symbolizes that both are sinful."2 Cedar and hyssop are "sinful" because they are extreme. The color red, Sforno writes, marks sin, as in the words of Isaiah, "though your sins be as scarlet . . ."3

As a student of Musar, traditional Jewish discipline for the soul, I seek "the golden mean" whenever I'm concentrating on a midah (soul trait). Humility is the classic example: We strive to be neither haughty nor self-abasing. Along the way, though, a person who is given to self-aggrandizement may need to seek out the other extreme, behaving in a way that seems self-effacing. Those who are apt to be overly selfless, on the other hand, may need to toot their own horns more than makes them comfortable, on the way to achieving balanced humility.4

Extremism, harmful in most circumstances, is no vice if pursued to seek balance.5

1. Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (Numbers), Aryeh Newman, trans. (Jerusalem: The World Zionist Organization, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the Diaspora, 1980), p. 234

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Everything I know about Musar is attributed to my teacher, Alan Morinis, though I am responsible for the words here.

5. Paraphrasing 1964 Republican presidential nominee, Sen. Barry Goldwater, a"h

Rabbi Barry Block serves Congregation B'nai Israel in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Reference Materials: 

Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,145-1,164; Revised Edition, pp. 1,022-1,042
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 915–936