Parashat Chukat: Numbers 19:1 to 22:1

For Shabbat, June 30, 2023

This complex Torah portion begins with the story of the “parah adu’mah,” the ‘red heifer.’ Mystery and paradox mark the regulations concerning the red heifer (as detailed in chapter 19). They describe a process of purification for anyone who has had contact with a dead body. This could be accomplished only after the ‘defiled’ person was sprinkled with water mixed with ashes of the burned red heifer, meticulously prepared by the high priest who would be rendered unclean while engaged in the preparation of this very process of purification! As the Talmud states: the red heifer serves at one and the same time “to purify the unclean and to defile the clean.”

An entire tractate of the Mishna called “para” (the heifer) is dedicated to expounding the laws of the red heifer. The tradition is cited that between the time of Moses and that of the first century C.E. there was a record of at least ten red heifers that were actually used for this sacred ritual. Are there logical explanations for this ritual? Most Sages avoid providing such explanations, although Nachmanides in the 13th century offers many ideas about this sacrifice. One may argue that this strange ritual provides an educational lesson. It is a dramatic reminder that Jews are forbidden to touch or venerate the bodies of their dead.

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