The Red Heifer and the Cycle of Life and Death

This article comments on the weekly Torah portion of Chukat, June 20-26/1-7 Tammuz.

“She changes everything she touches,
and everything she touches changes.”

“Speak O my soul, sing O my soul, Change is God,
and Death is his prophet.”
Yehuda Amichai

In Numbers 19, which corresponds to the Torah portion of Chukat, the Torah describes the ritual of the red heifer: the ritual slaughter of a red cow with no blemish, and the burning of the cow together with cedar wood, hyssop, and red thread. The ashes of this cow are mixed with water and used as part of a seven-day ritual to purify those members of the community who have come in contact with death. Those on whom this “water of impurity” (mei nidah) are sprinkled become pure. However, all those who are involved in the making or administering of the water become impure. The ashes of the red heifer make the pure impure and the impure pure. How are we to understand this?

In a rabbinic story, a pagan challenged the great rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai by asking him: “The things you Jews do are magic! A cow is brought, burned up, pounded to ashes, and the ashes are gathered up. Then, when one of you is defiled by contact with a corpse, two or there drops of water mixed with these ashes is sprinkled upon that person, and the person is told: “You are now clean!”

Rabbi Yochanan asks the pagan about his own practices when people are possessed by spirits of madness, and the pagan describes a similar custom of sprinkling water mixed with roots on the afflicted person. Rabbi Yochanan then says: “Do not your ears hear what your mouth says? A man defiled is like one possessed by a spirit. The spirit is the spirit of uncleanness, and when the water is sprinkled, the spirit flees.”

The pagan goes away satisfied, but the students of the rabbi are troubled. They ask Rabbi Yochanan to give them a better answer. Rabbi Yochanan says: “As you live, the corpse does not defile, nor does the water cleanse. The truth is that the rite of the red heifer is a decree of the King of Kings…” Essentially, he says that the details of the ritual are meaningless. They simply comprise a ceremony God has commanded the Jewish people, and have no actual magical power. (See Numbers Rabbah 19:8.)

But is there a way of reconciling the answer Rabbi Yochanan gives the pagan with the one he gives his students? Is the ritual magical or meaningless? What does the red heifer teach us about the nature of life, death, and the Divine?

In biblical myth, impurity (tumah) is associated with the forces of mortality, which are also forces of fertility (childbirth, menstruation, seminal emission, and death), and purity (taharah) with the immortal forces of life (the Temple, the priests). The fact that the heifer’s ashes make the impure pure and also the pure impure suggests that these ashes represent a change agent: they bring life into death and allow death to return to life. In other words, they represent God, who is the One who causes the living to die and brings the dead to life. In this respect, the (female) heifer is a symbol of the Divine feminine: her ashes represent the eternal cycle of life, often associated with the Shekhinah/the Goddess.

The red heifer stands in for the Divine, the ultimate source of change. The one who receives the sprinkling after a death allows himself or herself to accept change and re-enter the flow of life. By becoming impure so that others can be pure, the priests act as humans who are part of the cycle of mortality and fertility, but who also touch the eternal.

So Rabbi Yochanan’s two answers are both right. The ritual itself does not cause the cycle of life and death and life, it only symbolizes it, and in that respect it has no ultimate significance. On the other hand, the ashes of the red heifer have true spiritual power. They reflect, in a physical way, the sacred experience of the cycle of life, and allow those who have touched death to return to the ways of life. In that way, the rite may have had great impact on those who performed it, and did indeed chase away “the spirit of uncleanness.” We could use such a ritual today, and in fact some Jews do have the custom of washing their hands in a bowl of water on the doorstep when they return home from a graveyard.

Melinda Ribner, author of Kabbalah Month by Month, points out that the meaning of the red heifer ritual is further emphasized by the fact that not long after the ritual of the red heifer, Miriam and Aaron both die. Further, God punishes Moses for striking a rock in anger with his staff in order to get water, by decreeing that he will not enter the Promised Land. The Israelite people must move into a new generation of leaders. This larger story helps teach the meaning of the smaller story: that following God is about accepting change. Ribner also teaches that we read this story during the month of Tammuz to prepare us for the loss of the Temple, marked at this season of the year. The stories of the heifer and the deaths of the three prophets teach us to accept the past and move into the future.

May the parah adumah, the red cow whose ashes bring us change, remind us of the beauty and mystery of our lives.

Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is a senior associate at Mayan: The Jewish Women's Project of the JCC in Manhattan, where she serves as the editor of Journey and as a teacher of creative ritual. She is the author of Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women and the founder of Tel Shemesh.

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