The chok of the Red Heifer is called “the chok” and our sages interpret this to mean that all chokim (laws which are super-rational) are subsumed within this mitzvah of Para Adumah (red cow.)
King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, couldn’t quite figure it out and our sages have wrestled with it for millennia.
Why is it so hard to understand? Because it’s filled with paradoxes. I’ll state the mitzvah and then I’ll lay out a few paradoxes and then I’ll try to come up with a way of understanding it that I haven’t seen before (which in no way means that I’m having an original thought.)
If you know the story, drop to the suggestions below:
Ok. Let’s go! What’s the mitzvah of para adumah? First, you have to understand what is the red cow (we’ll get to why red later.) The red cow is an almost perfect cow. It has all red hair (less than two black hairs) and has no blemishes or flaws and has never been worked. In fact, it never even had a bit in its mouth.
Our sages tell us that there will only ever be 10 in the world.
Ok. So, it is a very special animal. Fine. What’s the mitzvah?
The mitzvah is that there is a type of tumah (inexactly translated as “impurity”) called tumah met. Tumah met is the impurity (tumah) that surrounds people that have come in contact with a dead body. Remember that the reason Jews up until the year 70AD were so concerned about tumah was because you couldn’t enter the Temple if you were ‘tamei.’ You had to be “ritually pure” (another inexact translation) in order to enter the Temple to bring a sacrifice.
Now, you need to know a few more things before we get to the paradoxes: first, this perfect cow is going to be slaughtered and burned. Once it’s burned, it’s ashes are going to be placed in water and that water will be used to remove the tumah met from the bodies of all those who come in contact with it. Second, most of our sages and religiously observant Torah experts believe the existence of this perfectly red cow signals the coming of the messianic age, because we can’t build and enter a third Temple if we are impure.
Let’s get to the paradoxes.
First, we are told that the reason it has to be a red heifer is because it atones for the golden calf. Huh? I thought it was to purify those who came in contact with death. What does the golden calf have to do with death? That was about idolatry, right?
Second, we are told that the person who gets the ash/water combo sprinkled on them becomes pure BUT the person who slaughters the cow and carries out the ritual is impure and requires another process to become pure (tahor.) But that doesn’t make sense. We have many other sacrifices and they don’t cause the Kohein performing the service to become impure. Why does this one?
We have to understand a few things to answer the paradox.
Contact with death (met) is the greatest of all the impurities. Why? Because there is no place closer to seeing your life as meaningless when you stand next to the infinitude of death. A soul appears as a drop of water next to a vast ocean when a finite human contemplates death. And when you see yourself as something so incredibly finite and limited, you are at the greatest risk of believing that nothing in this world matters. And that’s an outright denial of God, who brought you into this world.
- The Torah shows us the Cheit HaEygel (sin of the golden calf) as a mistake made by people that were in the wilderness and incorrectly presumed that Moses was dead. They wanted to choose a leader and they put a golden idol in Moses’ place. They were wrong and they were killed.
- We are shown Nadav and Avihu who thought they could bring their own “strange fire” in the Mishkan (tabernacle) and they were killed for their mistake. Some say they were intoxicated but Moses and Aaron agree that they were very holy.
- The Meraglim were sent as scouts but thought they could act as spies. They made their own determination that it would be impossible to conquer the land. They were wrong and they were killed.
- We are shown Korach and his rebellion. Korach thought he should be a leader, like Aaron. He was wrong and he was killed.
- Korach’s followers thought they could bring an incense offering. Nope. Mistake! Killed.
- Miriam thinks she knows better than God and questions why Moses doesn’t sleep in the same tent as his wife. Mistake! Miriam gets tzaaras (improperly translated as leprosy) and then she dies.
- Moses himself thought he could hit the rock rather than speak to it the way God requested. For this mistake, Moses wasn’t allowed into Israel and he was killed.
Are you seeing the pattern?
It’s all ego. Everyone thinks they know better. Everyone thinks they have the answers. And it leads to death nearly every time.
What on Earth are we supposed to learn from this and how does this answer the paradox(es) of the Red Heifer?
Jews were taken from Egypt as slaves for a reason.
Moses NEVER says, “Let my people go!” despite what Cecil B DeMille would have you believe. Re-read that section of Torah: “Let my people go so that they might serve Me.”
See the difference?
The Jews were supposed to leave slavery and become servants of God. In order to be a servant of God you have to have incomparable humility. How do we know?
Because of all the various compliments Hashem could have paid Moses, he chose to compliment him by saying he was the most humble.
And we still see this today. King David says in his Psalms that we must pray from “a low place.” Our liturgy starts off by saying that “fear of Hashem is the beginning of wisdom.”
We must see ourselves as being dependent on God for all things. Only then can we be truly grateful and carry out our mission in this world.
Fine. What does this have to do with the paradoxes?
The perfect animal comes in the form of a Red Heifer. A heifer is a domesticated animal that lives to serve. It provides us with milk and other cows for meat and it helps us to plow the field and carries our burdens. There is no better animal to show humility. And this particular cow, with only ten throughout history, is perfect.
By getting sprinkled by the water and ashes of a perfectly domesticated animal – a beast of burden – you will remember to diminish your ego and serve God.
Why red? Red serves as a paradox in itself. Red is our blood and our nefesh. But red also represents sin. (Hashem says at Rosh Hashanah: I will make your crimson sins turn white like snow.) We want to see a red cow to know that while we are alive (nefesh) we can become impure (tamei) but that God will purify us.
Why would the person performing the service need to be purified afterwards? Because unlike the other sacrifices, the person performing this service is doing something that only a few others in Jewish history have done. To slaughter a Red Heifer like Aaron or any of the other high priests who had the privilege, would be to inflate the ego of the one performing the service. That person must become purified afterwards or they now have the impurity of excessive ego upon their hands.
Practical application? You can go through life filled with worry and self-doubt. It’s miserable but it’s being done by billions at this very moment. The beauty of living your life as a servant to Hashem is that your biggest responsibility to is to know God and to love God. In that life, you are proud to be a Jew and you are proud to serve God but the pride never goes to your head. You are no longer worrying about the trials and tribulations of life because you know they are from God and they are there for your benefit, even if you can’t see it or understand it.
Want to know what the Muslims think of the Red Cow? https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_heifer
Bonus: A possible Red Heifer was born less than a year ago. It doesn’t become a true Para until it is one year old. Based on the article below, that will happen this year in Elul: https://www.theyeshivaworld.com/news/israel-news/1593859/watch-possible-kosher-para-adumah-found-in-eretz-yisroel.html