Daniel J.H. Greenwood

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Parashat Hukat (Numbers 19) I: The Puzzle of The Red Heifer

As you know, the traditional commentators classify the laws in several ways. Some divide them into the Noachide laws, applicable by God's command and blessing to Noah and therefore to all humankind, such as the law against murder, or permission to eat meat but not the blood, or the obligation to create a just legal system. Other rules apply only to the Jewish kingdom under David's descendants, or while the Temple stands, or while the Sanhedrin sits such as the elaborate criminal law set out, in part, in Leviticus. And others are commandments for all time for Jews, but not Gentiles.

There are other classifications: the divisions into negative and positive commandments, for example. Or into rules from the Torah proper and rules by interpretation or authority of the rabbis, d'rabbanan. Or the laws relating to the relations between human and human, as opposed to those relating to human and God: only the latter, you recall, are the ones we can atone for on Yom Kippur.

Maimonides classified the law in a way that has become quite important for the modern Reform movement.

The laws of the Parah Aduma are the paradigm of the inexplicable law: the midrash says,

Thus spoke Solomon: I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah, but, when I reached this chapter about the Red Heifer, I searched, probed and questioned. Quoting Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 7, 23: "All this have tried to fathom by wisdom; I said, I will get wisdom; but it was far from me." (Yalkut Shimoni 759, quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in BaMidbar 233)

Let me remind you of their content, though you heard it this morning. The Parah Aduma (Red Heifer), without a blemish, is to be slaughtered by the priest, who sprinkles its blood 7 times before the Tent of Meeting. Then it is burned in his presence, with its blood and flesh and dung, while the priest casts certain mysterious and aromatic substances into the fire. And everyone who participates is rendered unclean and has to go through various purification rituals, following which the ashes are put into a vessel with Living Water, and a clean person may use an ayzov (marjoram, according to Even Shoshan; hyssop, a kind of mint, according to the JPS translation) to sprinkle the water on an unclean person on the third day and the seventh day, to purify them.

Truly a mysterious procedure: magical almost. Stand on your left foot, twirl around twice, add some

fillet of a fenny snake, In the cauldron boil and bake; Eye of Newt and toe of frog, Wool of bat and tongue of dog, Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg and owlet's wing, For a charm of powerful trouble, Like a hell-broth boil and bubble. (Macbeth IV:I:10)

Just the sort of ritual that bothers the rationalists, that offends those who think that the bar on pork or the requirement of circumcision are health related, or that the peculiarities of Leviticus' sexual morés reflect eternal moral truths. And the sort of ritual that confounds those who see Judaism as the eternal reaction to the idolatry and magic of the peoples.

But let's look beyond the magic and put it into a context. Look at how the law works a little more closely, particularly in our post-destruction of the Temple world.

The Red Heifer allows purification from the impurity caused by contact with death.

He that touches the dead body of any man that dies shall be unclean for seven days ... but if he does not purify himself on the third day and the seventh day, he shall remain unclean.

Without the Red Heifer, the uncleanness lasts forever.

So, after the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the Red Heifer, everyone who has ever touched a dead person is unclean. But not just those who have touched a dead person -- anyone who has been in the home of a person who has died, and anything that was in that home -- so everyone who has ever visited mourners sitting shiva is unclean. And everyone who touches a grave. And the text goes on:

And whatever the unclean person touches shall be unclean (vs. 22).

Just like cooties: if someone who has cooties touches you, you get cooties too. So anyone who has been touched by someone who has touched the body of a dead person, or by someone who has been to a shiva or entered the house of a person who has died, or touched a grave is unclean. By now, it should be clear: without the Red Heifer, we are all unclean, we all have cooties.

So we are all unclean. So what? The consequence is very clear: we are prohibited from coming close to the sanctuary of the Lord -- the Temple -- or we will be cut off from the People. No one can approach the Temple: there can be no High Priest, no sacrifices, not even any entry into the Temple Mount.

The only way around it is if we can find a new Red Heifer: an unlikely enterprise, since we do not know what it is, and error is impermissible. And even that is not enough, because the purification ritual requires that a clean person sprinkle the water that purifies the others, and we have no clean person.

The ritual of the Red Heifer, then, is not entirely meaningless: it teaches us that Messiah cannot come through human hands.

The Temple cannot be rebuilt without direct divine intervention. Once the Heifer disappeared, there is no one who is clean to reinstate the ritual; no one who is permitted to restart the sacrifices; no one who is permitted to approach the Sanctuary. The Third Temple, unlike the first two, must come down from Heaven ready-built, complete with a Red Heifer and a purified person who can purify the High Priest and anyone else who would approach the House of the Lord.

Thus, not the Romans, not the Moslems, not the United Nations or the human rights activists nor the opinion of the world bars us from destroying El Aqsa which stands now on the Temple Mount and rebuilding our Temple. Rather, our own law creates the Exile. Our own law ensures that we remain unredeemed, in the Galut (Exile), without regard to the vagaries of history or the plans of man.

Galut, thus, is essential to Judaism, not merely an accident of history changeable by draining swamps, building Arrow anti-missile missiles, or sending mitzvah mobiles to encourage the children kidnapped by the gentiles (i.e., secular Jews) to lay t'fillen. Galut -- the exile not from the Land, but from the presence of God -- is the at the core of our religion: we may not approach the Sanctuary of God while unclean, and we are all unclean.

- 1994