Death and the “Impossible” Ritual (Chukat)

By Reb David

Sometimes reasons for religious values and rituals seem obvious; other times they seem arcane or pointless. How do we receive the mysterious aspects of tradition? Should we moderns ignore them, re-interpret, blindly follow or do something else? This week’s paresha (Chukat) invites these questions about the strange ritual of the red heifer.

An ancient Israelite who encountered death – whether by touching a corpse or being in the presence of a dead body – could restore ritual purity by what today we might call a potion. To make this potion, God told Moses:

Instruct the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke was laid. Give it to Eleazar the priest. It will be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest will take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The heifer will be burned in his sight — hide, flesh and blood, its dung also — and the priest will take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the heifer…. [When one becomes ritually impure by touching a corpse,] some of the ashes from the fire will be taken for the unclean person, and fresh water will be added to them in a vessel. A person who is clean shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle … it on the unclean person on the third day and the seventh day, thus cleansing him by the seventh day… and at nightfall he shall be clean….  This shall be for [you] a permanent law for all time (Num. 19:2-19).

450px-Red_Angus_HeiferOf the many issues arising from this ritual, the most vexing one might be that it’s impossible to perform. How can the whole Israelite nation bring any single cow? or find a red heifer “without blemish” (with no hairs of a different color)? with “no defect” (red cows don’t come that way)? that was never yoked (ever seen a wild cow)? Strict as these rules are, rabbinic law made them even more exact. To ensure that a candidate cow was never yoked, its every hair must be checked to ensure that it doesn’t bend, because a bent hair may suggest that the cow once wore a yoke (Mishnah Parah 3:5). Add unbent hair to the list of a red heifer’s disqualifying features.

The problem is that there are no genetically perfect undomesticated uni-colored red cows with strictly straight hair. It hasn’t stopped some from looking, but they probably shouldn’t hold out high hopes.

So why does Torah speak of the red heifer? A law that seems to have no purpose is a chok (a divine statute) that tradition asks us to follow for no reason other than to submit to divine authority, for the spiritual value of submitting to divine authority. That’s the theme of this week’s portion, called Chukat – named for this impossible chok of the red heifer. When we submit to divinity, by definition we must calm the ego and relinquish our own sense of things – and these goals are perhaps the greatest spiritual values of all.

Of course, even these virtues can’t alone explain the red heifer because this chok isn’t just inexplicable: by definition, it’s impossible because – all things aside – there exists no qualifying cow. Why would Torah ask the impossible?

Maybe Torah is asking something else in disguise. Perhaps the mythic red heifer is an allegory to the golden calf – a reminder that it’s impossible to find monotheism’s totality of spirituality and divinity in a cow, symbol or other earthly construct. As with a Buddhist koan, we learn from this very impossibility to shift our consciousness to another plane.

Or maybe we can find a clue in the context in which the red heifer arises. Torah offers the red heifer potion to purge someone after touching death. Maybe the impossibility of the red heifer is a hidden lesson that there is no complete purge after touching death. Someone who has seen death, touched death or been touched by death is changed forever: the veil of this plane is lifted and we no longer can deny that even we ourselves will die. Whether our response is to long for a loved one, develop a richer appreciation for life, sense our own mortality or find a new sense of ourselves or spirituality, the reality is that death is different. By encountering death, we change – and no potion can (or should) completely purge that change from our lives.

Enter the red heifer – less a real cow than a ghost of a cow – to remind us that no earthly ritual can (or should) purge this change. We can seek change that is healthy, wise, spiritual, open-hearted and life-affirming – and we can use ritual to cultivate this kind of change – but we can’t deny change itself. Even in the impossible red heifer, we can resolve to make meaning in our lives – for all that is possible in our lives – and to let go of the rest. When death crosses our path, the ritual we need isn’t to chase the impossible, but to help us grieve and re-connect with ourselves and community anew.

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