The shadow of death reminds us to pursue activities of life


Numbers 19:1-22:1

Judges 11:1-33

You may remember Dolly, the sheep that made front-page headlines because she was the first mammal created by cloning.

Though not quite as famous as Dolly, Melody, a young brown-eyed heifer with auburn-colored hide, was also a celebrity because she was thought by some to be the red heifer described in the Bible.

In fact, if she were the first one born in Israel in 2,000 years, her presence would be a direct sign to traditional Jews that redemption was not far off and that the great Temple in Jerusalem would soon be rebuilt.

Alas, a few white hairs disqualified Melody as the red heifer, because Jewish Law dictates that such a "holy cow" must be completely red. Those awaiting redemption must continue to be patient!

Hukkat, this week's Torah portion, explicates the importance of the parah adumah, the red heifer, in the ritual life of the ancient cultic priesthood. "Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid" (Numbers 19:2ff).

In ancient Israel, the high priest slaughtered a 3-year-old red heifer, burned it with cedar wood and other fragrant additives and then mixed the resultant ashes with water.

This mixture was sprinkled on those seeking ritual cleansing resulting from their having come into contact with the dead, which disqualified them from entering the Temple.

Not only were those who had come into contact with the dead disqualified from entering the Temple, but also the priest who prepared this mixture was defiled by his participation in this preparation and had to be made ritually pure again.

Ancients feared that corpse contamination, contact with the dead, held some kind of power over the living. Indeed, many of the rituals central to death and mourning — erecting a headstone on a grave, placing a pebble on a gravestone, washing hands upon leaving a cemetery — may relate to long-forgotten practices that required those who were thought to be defiled by contact with the dead to be purified.

While it is easy to comprehend the psychological concern about coming into contact with the dead, it is difficult to understand the necessity of using the ashes of a red cow for purification.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai compared the rite of the parah adumah with the ritual of exorcising madness. To him, it was a kind of sorcery. Whatever the rationale, he concluded that the dead do not defile anything and ashes do not purify anything.

In fact, the justification for this ritual was so remote in his day (circa 70 C.E.) that he suggested that attempts to explain it and other obscure commandments were futile and would have to wait until their hidden truths are revealed by God (Bemidbar Rabbah 19.8).

The prophet Jeremiah (17:13) had earlier tried to explain away the meaning of this abstruse ritual by attempting to supplant the role of the cultic priesthood. He referred to God as the mikvah — the purifying waters or the hope of Israel, suggesting that it was God alone who could impart the purity that others believed water and ashes could provide.

While attempts to breed holy cows in order to restore the glory of the ancient priesthood is an exciting prospect to a small Jewish minority, most modern Jews simply yawn when hearing about Melody or any other red heifer being raised for the ancient prescription of ritual purification.

With the destruction of the Temple and priesthood and the concomitant development of rabbinic Judaism, Jews have moved far afield of sacred red cows, ritual slaughter and burnt offerings. Indeed, most Jews would be aghast at their reinstitution as a centerpiece of modern Judaism.

But what the parah adumah does teach is that no one escapes association with death. This knowledge should encourage not ritual but action. With the shadow of death ever present in our lives, we ought not to be preoccupied with rituals of death but with the activities of life.

It is a simple, yet easily ignored lesson whose urgency was aptly expressed almost 2,000 years ago in an elegant maxim of Rabbi Tarfon in Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:20: "The day is short, and the work is great…and the Master [God] is impatient."