By Shlomo Riskin ~
One of the unfathomable mysteries of the Bible is this passage about the red heifer, a law which appears to lack any rational explanation, and about which the wisest of mortals, King Solomon, declared, “I thought I could fathom it with my wisdom, but it remains far away from me and elusive” (Ecclesiastes 7:23).
We shall attempt to unlock the symbolism behind this very strange procedure, and in so doing hopefully understand the identity of the “pure person” as well as the reference to the red heifer as a “sin offering.”
The Israelites were to bring a red heifer without blemish and on which no yoke had been laid. This heifer was to be taken outside the holy encampment and slaughtered before the eyes of the High Priest, in sight of the Holy of Holies but far from it, where the Mount of Olives cemetery is now located. The cow was then completely burned – its hide, flesh, blood and even dung – with the kohen (priest) casting cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet thread into the flames (Numbers 19:1-6).
I suggest that the cow represents the Jewish nation, the “mother” of all nations, which nourishes the world with the milk of human kindness, compassionate righteousness and moral justice, the openhouse hospitality taught by Abraham and Sarah. The cow is red because red is the color of blood, and blood is the life/soul of humanity. Without the moral teachings of Israel, without the seven Noahide Laws and the Ten Commandments, the free world would cease to exist, and humanity would dissolve in a blast of nuclear explosions.
“Israel” was to be taken outside – beyond the encampment of moral, human beings – to the bestial world of Auschwitz and Treblinka, where six million innocent men and women, totally pure children and babies, people who had not known any enslavement before, would be slaughtered by fire; human lives and human dreams were charred black in a hell devised by human demons, human remains going up in the smokestacks of Satan’s funeral pyre.
There were no exceptions, no reprieves for those doomed to die only because they were Jews: The Jews’ proud, straight and tall cedar trees – communal leaders such as rabbis, judges and philanthropists – were taken along with the lowly, poverty-stricken Jews, akin to the hyssop plant. And yes, within this fiery mix was also the scarlet color of sin, for there were sinning Jews as well.
What heinous crime had been committed by the “cow” to make it deserving of such a fate? Perhaps it was no sin at all, perhaps it was merely the price exacted from the messengers of the good, the teachers of compassionate righteousness and social justice, the upholders of individual human dignity and freedom by the evil powers of fascism, fanatic jihad and totalitarian enslavement. Do not our sages teach that from Sinai itself descended the sin’a – hatred against the people of the ethical way? But then our biblical text does call this “red cow” a “sin offering,” albeit for an inadvertent transgression. After all, were we not intended to be “a blessing to the families of the earth,” to teach future generations compassionate righteousness and moral justice, to be a light unto the nations? Is it not biblically sound to suggest that we are the suffering servant of Isaiah 53, bearing the sins of the world because we did not fulfill our mission as a “sacred nation and a kingdom of priests/teachers”? And a sin offering brings atonement and forgiveness.
Hence the pure person – and only God is a truly pure “person” – will gather the ashes of the cow, mix them with the living waters which symbolize our sacred Torah and, by means of His agent the kohen, sprinkle the mixture on the hapless individual who has become impure by contact with death.
Only God can save a mortal from death.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.