How Now, Brown Cow?
This Shabbat we conclude the reading of the book of Exodus with its two final parashiyot (Va-yak·hel and Pekudei), which recapitulate the fund-raising for and construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert. It is also the third of the four special Shabbatot that precede the festival of Pesah, known as Shabbat Parah, because we read from the book of Numbers (19:1–22) the enigmatic Statute of the Red Heifer. This statute (hukkah) deals with a purification ritual following contact with a dead body. It falls within the category of laws for which there is no rationale given in the Torah; neither would it be possible to derive such a law on the basis of reason. It is a decree from God, and we are not permitted to question it. This ritual has several features in common with other purification practices—such as the Scapegoat Ritual of Yom Kippur and the Purification of the Leper—but some aspects are unique to it.
I would like to review several components of the Red Heifer ritual that I find most challenging and ask two questions: (1) Is there any way to understand this arcane ritual that has resonance in modern times?; and (2) Why do we read this passage shortly before Pesah?
In the ritual, the Israelites are to bring to Moses a perfectly red (probably brown, according to Milgrom) cow, without blemish, which has never been yoked. It will be taken outside the camp and under the supervision of the deputy high priest be burned in its entirety (hide, flesh, blood, and dung) along with hyssop, cedar, and crimson wool (seven items). The ashes are then added to purifying waters and the mixture is used to purify or decontaminate those who have become tamei, contaminated, by contact with a corpse. A person who is tahor, that is, uncontaminated, sprinkles the water over the contaminated person on the third and seventh day following contact, after which the contamination is said to be gone. The purification process is required, when someone has died indoors, for anyone who touches the corpse and for everyone “in the tent.” It is also required for anyone who comes in contact with a corpse, or even a bone of someone who has died, “in the field,” whether from natural causes or not. The deputy high priest and the person who burns the cow become contaminated in the process, and when the water and ashes are used to decontaminate the corpse-defiled individual, the person who sprinkles the ashes and water becomes contaminated in the process. The paradox of the ashes and water which contaminate the uncontaminated and decontaminate the contaminated has interested commentators for generations.
Maimonides, in The Guide for the Perplexed, writes about the efficacy of purification rituals in general: “These ceremonies are of a symbolic character, and serve to impress men with a certain idea, and to induce them to repent . . .” (III:LXVI). He goes on to say, “The easier the diffusion of uncleanliness is, the more difficult and the more retarded is its purification. Most easily is uncleanliness communicated by the dead body to those who are under the same roof, especially to relatives. The purification can only be completed by means of the ashes of the red heifer, however scarce it may be, and only in seven days” (III:LXVII). The contamination from a corpse is not only easily acquired, but very common. In our time, when the process of dying has become so medicalized, few of us who are not health care professionals have the experience of being “in the tent.” We must remember, however, that until very recently, people did not typically die in hospital ICUs surrounded by professional staff, but at home surrounded by loved ones. Therefore, occasions to acquire tum’at met were frequent.
Perfectly red cows, on the other hand, ones with no black or white hairs whatsoever, are extremely rare. It is inconceivable that, even in biblical times, there were enough cows to accommodate the need. Rather, the entire passage, with its repetitive detail and numerous references to the number seven, is more like a magical formula designed to teach us something about the nature of life and death. Death is not merely the absence of life, not merely a negative category. Anyone who has been part of a hevrah kaddisha and has participated in a taharah recognizes that the deceased is a positive presence. What’s more, death—all death—has an effect on us all. Whether it is someone close, “in the tent,” or a stranger, “in the field”; whether by natural causes, like a tornado, or by killing, like at Chardon High School—we are affected. We must pay attention. We must pay attention because there is no red heifer to “decontaminate” us, and probably there never was.
What relation has all this to Pesah? On one level, it is clear that slavery is a kind of death. It is the death of freedom, of individuality, of personhood itself. We are reminded, in the maftir reading for Shabbat Parah, that there is no red heifer, there is no way to cleanse ourselves of the contamination of contact with the slavery of discrimination, of unfairness, of inequality. The only way to be free of the taint of complicity is to be proactive in eliminating the source.
Finally there is the key paradox of the red heifer, the ashes and water that decontaminate the contaminated and contaminate the uncontaminated. It is said that everything in nature contains its opposite. We are reminded, as we approach the paradigmatic festival of liberation, that we were freed not to be able to act without restraint, but in order to establish a just society. Ours is not the libertarian notion of freedom so prevalent in contemporary political discourse. Our freedom is one which comes with obligations. It is this paradox of which we are reminded in these weeks preceding Pesah by the reading of the fantastical tale of the perfectly brown cow.
The publication and distribution of the JTS Torah Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.