Parshat Chukat: Numbers 19:1-22:1; Judges 11:1-33.
One of the most profound mysteries of the Bible is the rite of the red heifer, called a chok (statute) because it belongs to the group of Divine decrees that human logic cannot penetrate.
We must be mindful of the fact that all other impurities other than a death impurity find their purification by the defiled individual’s immersing himself/herself in a mikveh, a gathering of freshly running spring water or specially collected life-giving rainwater; in effect, in all these instances, the defiled individual actually purifies him/herself.
Only in this rite of the red heifer does the kohen (priest), representing God Himself, effectuate the purification. It is as though the Torah is teaching that we can save ourselves from many of our weaknesses, we can rise above many of our temptations, but only God can ultimately redeem us from death.
From this perspective, the symbolism of the red heifer begins to make sense. A heifer is the consummate symbol of life: the cow’s mother-milk serving as the universal expression of maternal nurturing of her young; red is likewise the color of blood, and blood is the life force, the very nefesh (soul) of the living organism.
Although human beings come in various shapes, sizes, personalities and powers, the angel of death ultimately conquers them all; the scarlet thread of human sin condemns each of us to the destiny of mortality.
Following the sacrifice, the personage of purity gathers the ashes of the remains, mixes them with the life-giving waters of the Divine and, born-again, purified life emerges even from the surrealistic specter of death itself. Inherent in this symbolism is that historic Israel: Mother-nurturer of the continuity of humanity is destined to be slaughtered but will always rise again to life and to the fulfillment of her mission and destiny.
This symbolism of the red heifer assumed new significance for me after a trip to Berlin several years ago. I visited the Holocaust Memorial at the very center of the city.
I stumbled away from the experience feeling as though I had just awakened from a horrific nightmare. The symbolism of the monuments continued to haunt me months after I returned to Efrat; after all, those who lost loved ones in the Holocaust don’t even have graveside monuments to weep over.
Each empty stone screams out with any name, with every name, with my name and with my children’s names because a part of each human being was killed in those death camps whose perpetrators attempted to destroy every last vestige of humaneness.
I also came away from the experience feeling cheated by the memorial. Something was missing; the essence was missing; the victorious ending was missing. You see, the Jewish people won the war that Hitler tried to wage against us.
Yes, he succeeded in destroying 6 million of us, but he wasn’t waging a war against 6 million Jews. He was waging a war against the last Jew, against Judaism, against what he called a slave morality of compassionate righteousness and moral justice, of sensitive concern for the weaker vessels, of a God of ultimate power insisting upon human protection of the powerless. In that war, Hitler failed.
God Himself mixed the ashes with the life-giving wellsprings of Torah, our tree of eternal life and, in addition to our national physical being, likewise revived our spiritual being and Torah centers to an unprecedented and unparalleled degree all over the world.
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Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.