09 July 2019
Parashat Hukkat begins with the ritual of the red heifer, a ritual that according to legend even puzzled King Solomon (Numbers Rabbah, Hukkat 19:3) Still, we must take seriously the command and struggle with its implications, as “this is the ritual law that the Eternal has commanded” (Num 19:2). It may be helpful for us to look at the purpose of religious ritual generally. A ritual is an action/movement or a gesture which symbolically expresses something that has a deeper significance. The symbol is multi-dimensional in its capacity to engage different aspects of the persons involved and has the ability to go beyond the rational mind.
There is a starkness in reducing the heifer to dust, “The cow shall be burned …its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included” (Num 19:5). The dust is counter-balanced by symbols of energy and life. It is difficult to explore these aspects of ritual if one has never participated in it, and according to the Mishnah, “The ritual of burning the red cow was enacted only nine times: once by Moses, once by Ezra and seven times hereafter.” (Plaut, 1040) It is significant that this ritual comes before the two significant death of the religious leaders; Aaron and Miriam, and it is significant that this is a purification rite for those who have contact with death. The Talmud asks the question; “Why does the story of Miriam’s death follow directly after the chapter of the red cow? To teach us that even as the ashes if the red cow, purge us from transgression, so does the death of the just” (Plaut,1040).
Let us explore the red heifer ritual further by attending to its different elements. The colour red is suggestive of blood and its relationship with life: “The life force in the flesh is blood” (Lev 17:11). “Thus, the ashes of the red heifer might be viewed as removing corpse-impurity by counteracting it with blood, which contains the life force” (Rabbi Michael Chernick). Other elements involved, cedar and the red dyed wool re-enforce “the colour (and efficacy) of blood” (Fox, 752). Hyssop “was viewed as a powerful symbol of life because of its ability to thrive where little else could… this plant has been known as an aid to breathing, circulation, and an antiseptic: in short, a preserver of life.” (Rabbi Michael Chernick). The dust of the heifer is dissolved into “living water” and from water comes new life. (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks). The ritual thus holds the tension and the movement between the reality of our mortality, “Dust you are, and into dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19) and the life-giving waters that can enliven the dust of our lives.
For Reflection and Discussion:  What rituals have been significant in your life? What were the elements, actions, people involved?  Did the ritual re-enforce, challenge your perception of reality?
Bibliography: Fox, The Five Books of Moses (New York, 1995; Plaut (ed), The Torah, A Modern Commentary (New York, 1981); Michael Chernick, thetorah.com/rites-of-the-red-heifer/;
Rabbi Sacks, The Consolations of Mortality (5778), http:/rabbisacks.org/parsha/Chukat,
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