The Torah in Parashat Chukat commands that the para aduma (red heifer) should be taken “outside the camp” and burned (19:3). Its ashes were then mixed with water, and this water was used to purify those who had become impure through contact with a human corpse. The Mishna in Masekhet Para (3:6) establishes that in the times of the Beit Ha-mikdash, the para aduma was burnt east of Jerusalem, on Har Ha-mishcha, which is commonly identified as Har Ha-zeitim – the Mount of Olives.
We might perhaps view this association between the para aduma and the Mount of Olives in light of the early historical importance of this sight, as mentioned by the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 33:9). The Torah tells in Sefer Bereishit (8:11) that following the flood, the world remained covered by water for many months, and it was only when Noach sent out a dove from the ark, and the dove returned with an olive leaf, that Noach determined that the waters had subsided and life on earth was again viable. The Midrash cites the view of Rabbi Levi that this leaf was taken from the Mount of Olives. As Eretz Yisrael was not flooded during the deluge that covered the earth in Noach’s time, its vegetation remained intact, and the dove took an olive branch from the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, as a sign of the world’s recovery after the Flood.
Symbolically, then, the Mount of Olives represents the hope of rebirth and renewal after even the greatest calamity. A leaf from this mountain heralded the end of the period of devastation, and the potential for reconstruction. After the entire earth had effectively “died,” the leaf from the Mount of Olives was the harbinger of hope, a kernel of life from which the world could be rebuilt.
This perhaps explains the connection between the mei chatat, the purifying waters made from the ashes of the para aduma, and the Mount of Olives. After encountering death, a person is prone to despair and negativity. The sight of a human body, that not too long ago was capable of remarkable achievements, lying lifeless, can cause depression and hopelessness. The ashes used to “cleanse” such a person of his negativity originate, like the dove’s leaf, from the Mount of Olives. He is reminded of the message of this leaf, that even in the world’s darkest and dreariest moment, there remained an oasis of hope from which the process of reconstruction began. Even when the entire earth “died,” there was still one small pocket of life that enabled recovery. And thus after an encounter with death, with the harsh reminder of human mortality, a person is reminded of the Mount of Olives, the place which heralded the world’s rehabilitation after the devastation of the flood. He is shown that in his state of personal devastation and emotional turmoil, there is an “olive leaf” of hope and promise, which can and must inspire him to move onward with confidence and faith.