“The Paradox of the Red Heifer”
(updated and revised from Chukat-Balak 5762-2002)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we learn of the inscrutable law of the פָרָה אֲדֻמָּהParah Adumah, the Red Heifer. The Red Heifer was a completely unblemished, red-haired calf, that had never worked. The calf was slaughtered and burnt, its ashes mixed with holy water. When sprinkled on a ritually impure Jew, this mixture served to cleanse that person from impurity.

As we have often stated, because human life is the ultimate and most sanctified Jewish value, Judaism considers death to be the ultimate defiler. The bottom line of all the mitzvot of the Torah is the affirmation of human life. Hence, when any person comes in actual physical contact with a dead body, they are rendered ritually impure for seven days. The impure person must come to the Temple to be sprinkled with the holy water of the Red Heifer by the priests on the third and seventh day of impurity. After being sprinkled on the seventh day, the impure person would go to the mikveh, and become pure again after nightfall. Through this process, Judaism makes certain that Jews not become indifferent to death. When they become defiled, they reaffirm life, by going to the ultimate source of life–water.

The preparation of the Red Heifer was quite complex. The body of the heifer is burnt together with a branch of cedar wood, a branch of hyssop, and a woolen thread colored with the blood of a worm. The rabbis say that the powerful cedar represent hubris and strength. The hyssop represents humility. Together with the blood of the worm, these elements come to teach the human being not to be too self-centered nor overly self-effacing.

The rabbis state that the Red Heifer ritual is a “paradox.” It is מְטָהֵר טְמֵאִים, וּמְטַמֵּא טְהוֹרִים, it renders those who are impure, pure, and those who are pure, impure. Thus, anyone who comes in contact with the waters of the Red Heifer, or is involved in the preparation of the Red Heifer, is rendered impure. However, an impure person who comes in contact with the waters of the Red Heifer, is rendered pure.

According to Jewish tradition, every human being is born with a pure soul. As we say in our morning prayers, אֱ־לקַי נְשָׁמָה שֶׁנָּתַתָּ בִּי טְהורָה הִיא, Oh L-rd, the soul that You have given me is pure. Yet, we know from our Torah texts (Genesis 8:21), כִּי יֵצֶר לֵב הָאָדָם רַע מִנְּעֻרָיו, that the propensity of the heart of the human being is evil from his youth. While Jews do not accept the concept of “Original Sin,” we realize that sin is almost natural and much easier to commit. Good, can only be achieved through an active effort, whereas evil can be accomplished even passively. The famous 18th century British political philosopher, Edmund Burke stated, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing.” It is for this reason that the psalmist says (Psalm 34:15), סוּר מֵרָע, depart from evil, וַעֲשֵׂה טוֹב , and do good. The first step to doing good, is to earnestly avoid doing evil.

There is a profound lesson to be learned from the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. We learn that there’s a price we pay even for deeds that seem meritorious, like cleansing others. The question we need to ask however–is it worth the price? Dare we expose our children to what might prove to be negative influences by having non-religious guests at our homes on Shabbat? How do we set limits on these exposures? In effect, we must ask: Is there benefit in falling, in stubbing our toe? Do we get to use new muscles, and do we ultimately wind up stronger?

Regarding the well-known story of Purim and Queen Esther, our rabbis say about Mordechai, אִישׁ יְהוּדִי הָיָה בְּשׁוּשַׁן הַבִּירָה, (Esther 2:5) there was a Jewish man in Shushan, the capital. Clearly, he was physically located in Shushan, the capital. What then is the verse implying? The verse stresses the fact that he was in Shushan, to underscore that Mordechai was involved in all the affairs of life in the capital, not only in Jewish affairs, but general concerns, working to improve the quality of life for all citizens. It is said that Mordechai was a member of the Great Sanhedrin, and of the Anshei Knesset Hagdollah. Because of his preoccupation with Jewish life, as well as his concern for secular life in Shushan, his mastery of Torah suffered. He was no longer able to maintain the status of being the top contemporary Torah scholar. Perhaps he declined and became the fifth greatest scholar of his era. And, yet, he is known in rabbinic literature as “Mordechai the Tzaddik,” because, despite his diminution in Torah scholarship–G-d approved of what he did–since his activities were always directed to benefit the greater good.

Yes, the Red Heifer is מְטַמֵּא טְהוֹרִים, it renders those who are pure, impure. But, that’s a price we must be prepared to pay for improving the greater good. It is, after all, the way to achieve ultimate perfection.

May you be blessed.