D’var Torah for Chukat: The red heifer, life and death, and the story

Here’s the d’var Torah I offered yesterday morning at my shul for parashat Chukat. (Cross-posted to Velveteen Rabbi.)

In this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses and Aaron how to cleanse the tum’ah, the “ritual impurity,” which comes from contact with death. Take a red cow without blemish, on which no yoke has been laid. Give it to Elazar, the priest. Bring it outside the camp and slaughter it. Burn it there along with hyssop, cedar, and red thread.

The ashes from this fire, mixed with water, make a potion called mei-niddah, “waters of lustration.” Anyone who comes into contact with a dead body must be cleansed with the waters of lustration. Otherwise that person cannot enter the Temple precincts, and will be cut off from the people.

Contact with death confers tum’ah. And yet the ashes of the red heifer, which is itself dead, confer taharah; they make one pure again. In the Zen tradition, one might call this a koan, a teaching-riddle. In our tradition this is the classic example of a chok, a divine commandment which doesn’t make rational sense.

The sages of our tradition spend a lot of time on this one! Yochanan ben Zakkai argued that the ashes have no intrinsic power. They purify because this is a divine commandment, and following the mitzvot refines the human soul and makes one pure.

In other words: spiritual purity arises when we understand ourselves to be in relationship with God, and therefore do what God asks of us even when we don’t understand it. Through accepting ol malkhut mitzvot, the “yoke of the mitzvot,” we also accept ol malkhut shamayim, the “yoke of heaven.”

I find meaning in that idea, but this passage still challenges me. We’ve spent almost two thousand years in a post-Temple era. We’ve replaced the avodah which the priests used to perform with avodah she-ba-lev, the service of the heart. We offer prayers and teshuvah, not barbecue and ashes. The ritual of the red heifer feels uncomfortably like magic.

I think the ritual of the red heifer isn’t something we can understand through logic. Try reading it as though it were poetry. What are the words and images which recur in this passage? Blood; red; fire; water; ashes; pure.

While sacrifices often involved bulls, this one was a cow. A female, capable of creating life. The cow, morever, was red. Along with the cow, the priests were instructed to burn wool dyed scarlet: again, the color of blood. Torah teaches that “The life of every creature is in its blood.” (Lev. 17:14) The red heifer is a symbol of life.

She is taken outside the boundaries of the community, and there she is slaughtered, life becoming death. She is burned — fire, another symbol of death. The resulting ash is mixed with water: death, in liquid solution. But when one has a brush with death, it is the waters of niddah, this solution of ashes, which reconnect one with life.

It’s as though death magnetizes us, aligning us with death and dying instead of with life and living. The way to undo that magnetization (said the Torah) was to come into contact with death a second time — through these special ashes, mixed with water. Paradoxically, the second contact with death aligned us again with life. Maybe this practice says to us: when you encounter death, don’t try to imagine it away or pretend that it’s something else. Encounter it wholly. The only way out is through.

“Take to yourself a red cow, whole, unblemished.” To Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank (z”l) this means:

When you become aware that your nature is wild, and you notice your flaws, the negative side of being a wild animal, your hard-wiring, your problems with boundaries, your destructiveness and disorganization — also take into yourselves that you are as God made you, perfect in your present state at this moment, whole, unblemished.

For Rabbi Wolfe-Blank, each of us is the red cow: animal and chaotic, but also perfect and whole, just as God made us.

Another interpretation. This commandment tells us to take a perfect red cow who has never been subject to a yoke. In sacrificing this unyoked animal, we experience the yoke of the mitzvot and the yoke of heaven. The cow has never been yoked, but we are. Performing this ritual reminded us of that. And now that we no longer perform the ritual, our reminder is the story.

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