Here are the verses from Parshat Chukkat that describe the ritual of the red heifer:
This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight – its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included – and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest my reenter the camp, but he shall be unclean until evening. He who performed the burning shall also wash his garments in water, bathe his body in water, and be unclean until evening. A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing. He who gathers up the ashes of the cow shall also wash his clothes and be unclean until evening. This shall be a permanent law for the Israelites and for the strangers who reside among you. (Numbers 19: 1-10)How can something that is innately purifying render those who deal with it impure?
A wise and loving friend recently reminded me of something in another context that perhaps sheds light on the paradox of the red heifer. Someone who faces a medical, emotional, or personal challenge – one that evokes pain, anxiety, and fear –needs the “purifying” love of those closest to them. Love and support, however, are costly to those who generously give them; they absorb some of the pain, anxiety, and fear. Perhaps that is the cost of love. But who would have it otherwise?
In ancient times, those who were in a state of tum’ah (ritual impurity) due to contact with a corpse could not participate in the life-affirming rituals of the Wilderness Tabernacle or later, the Temple in Jerusalem, until they were purified. It was through being sprinkled with the ashes of the parah adumah (red heifer) – which brought tum’ah (ritual impurity) to those who made the purification possible – that the impure one could become pure again.
The sustaining love of those closest to us is as enigmatic as the ashes of the red heifer. It is emotionally cleansing and spiritually purifying. It is the touch of God. Could there be a greater blessing amidst such mystery?
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman