“The Paradox of the Red Heifer”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In Parashat Chukat, the first of this coming week’s double Torah portion, Chukat-Balak, we learn of the inscrutable law of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. The Red Heifer was a completely unblemished, red-haired calf, that had never worked. The calf was slaughtered and burnt, and its ashes were mixed with holy water. When sprinkled on an 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 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 contact with a dead body, they are rendered impure for seven days. The impure person must come to the Temple to be sprinkled with the holy water by the priests on the third and seventh day of impurity. On the night of the eighth, the impure person would go to the mikveh and become pure again. 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 or overly self-effacing.

The rabbis state that the Red Heifer ritual is a “paradox.” It is “M’tah’her t’may’im, ooh’m’tah’may t’horim,” it renders those who are impure, pure, and renders 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, “Elokai neshama sheh’nah’tah’tah bee, t’hor’ah hee,” Oh Lord, the soul that You have given me is pure. Yet we know from our Torah texts (Genesis 8:21), “Kee yay’tzer laiv ha’adam rah mee’neh’u’rav,” that the propensity of the heart of the human being is evil from his youth. While Jews do not subscribe to the belief in 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), “Sur may’rah,” depart from evil, “vah’ah’say tov,” 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 is a price we pay even for deeds that seem meritorious, like cleansing others. The question we need to ask, however, is, 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 story of Esther, our rabbis say about Mordechai, “Ish Yeh’hudi hay’yah b’Shushan ha’birah,” (Esther 2:6) 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 this fact to underscore that Mordechai was involved in all the affairs of life in the capital, not only in Jewish affairs, but in general, working to improve the quality of life for all citizens. It is said that Mordechai was a member of the Great Sanhedrin, and of Anshei Knesset Hagdollah, the Men of the Great Assembly. 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 as “Mordechai the Tzaddik,” because, despite his diminution in Torah scholarship, G-d approves of what he does because his activities were always to the benefit of the greater good.

Yes, the Red Heifer is “m’tah’may t’horim,” 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 only way to achieve ultimate perfection.

May you be blessed.