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Chukat | Putting the Red Heifer Into Context

Rav David Silverberg


            The drama of Parashat Chukat includes the shocking decree of death upon the national leaders of Benei Yisrael, Moshe and Aharon, the death of the third leader, Miriam the prophetess, and culminates with the people's stunning military victory over the powerful armies of the East Bank of the Jordan River.  Incongruously, the parasha begins with a seemingly dry, technical presentation of laws that we would have perhaps expected to find in Vayikra.  Parashat Chukat begins with the laws of the para aduma (the red heifer) whose ashes alone can divest one of the tum'a (ritual impurity) contracted through contact with a dead body.  Recall that the Vayikra devotes a large section in the middle of the sefer to the guidelines of ritual purity and impurity.  Vayikra addresses all forms of tum'a - whether from dead animals or insects, leprosy, or bodily emissions - with the exception of tum'at met the impurity generated by the remains of a deceased human.  Thus, the Torah seems to have extracted the Red Heifer from its natural location in Vayikra and transplanted it, in a foreign context in between the stories of Korach's revolt (chapters 16-18) and Miriam's death (beginning of chapter 20). 


The para aduma appears out of context not only thematically, but chronologically, as well.  Benei Yisrael already required the ashes of red heifer earlier, in order to enable them to perform sacrificial service in the Tabernacle, which require a state of purity.  Anyone who came in contact with a dead body could not enter the sacred ground before undergoing the process of purification involving the ashes of the heifer.  We must conclude, therefore, that these rules had in fact been transmitted earlier, when the Tabernacle was erected.  What more, the Torah makes explicit reference to the ashes of the para aduma several parshiyot earlier, in Parashat Beha'alotekha, where they played a role in the consecration ceremony of the Levites (8:7 - "mei chatat").  Indeed, in the chronology known as "Seder Olam Rabba," which dates back to the period of the Mishna, the initial red heifer ritual is said to have occurred on the second of Nissan, at least several months before the incident of Korach.  If the Torah delayed its presentation of these laws to this point, it must have seen some relationship between the red heifer and the current location.  The relevance of the red heifer to this context within Sefer Bemidbar will be the focus of our attention in this week's shiur.


The Red Heifer and Korach's Uprising


            Several commentators view chapter 19, the Torah's discussion of the para aduma, as an appendix of sorts to the story of Korach's rebellion. Chizkuni, for example, suggests a purely pragmatic association between Korach and the para aduma. Korach's uprising yielded tragic consequences: the death of Korach's entire following, including the two hundred and fifty men who were consumed by fire after offering an unwarranted incense offering.  In addition, a divine plague killed 17,400 people from among Benei Yisrael in the aftermath of the uprising (see 17:6-15).  According to Chizkuni, the sudden deaths that struck the nation resulted in widespread tum'a, thus accounting for the sudden introduction of the laws concerning the red heifer.  Abarbanel, who also adopts this view, adds that the original supply of ashes was simply depleted by the high death toll, thus necessitating the production of more ashes.


            While this approach does, indeed, identify a connection of sorts between the incident of Korach and the para aduma, it does not convincingly explain why this connection warrants transplanting chapter 19 from Vayikra.  Even if the recent tragedy did require Moshe to replenish the supply of ashes, why should this coincidental association require the seemingly awkward sequence of presentation?  It would seem that only a thematic, rather than incidental, relationship between Korach and the red heifer would justify the Torah's arrangement far more persuasively. 


            Ramban indeed suggests a topical association between Korach and the para aduma.  Immediately following the account of Korach's uprising and failure, the Torah proceeds to enumerate the "matenot kehuna," the gifts due to a kohen from the rest of the nation.  In response to Korach's revolt, which included a challenge to Aharon's right to the priesthood (see 16:10), God reaffirms Aharon's stature and lists the nation's obligations towards him and his offspring, the kohanim.  According to Ramban, the laws of the red heifer simply continue elaborating on the institution of the priesthood, as it is the kohen who prepares the purifying ashes of the heifer and sprinkles them on the individual seeking purification.  Thus, this chapter merely continues the discussion begun in the previous parasha concerning the rights, privileges and responsibilities of the kohen. 


In the nineteenth century, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin of Volozhin - the Netziv - posits that the concept represented by the red heifer is meant to contrast with the arguments posed by Korach and his following.  The two hundred and fifty protesters objected to the exclusivity of the priesthood, its restriction to Aharon and his sons.  They argued, "for the entire congregation is holy" (16:3), everyone deserves the privilege of ministering in the Mishkan.  The Netziv explains that this faction sought a level of "kedusha" (sanctity) that was off-limits to them; they tried to breach the barriers erected by God Himself and boldly assume for themselves the distinguished position of priesthood.  The response to their presumptuousness is the para aduma, which embodies the concept of tahara (purity) rather than kedusha.  Instead of focusing their energies on attaining levels of sanctity restricted to the kohanim, these men should have instead sought the more basic level of purity.  As opposed to kedusha, which involves an ascent or progression beyond one's current condition, tahara means working within one's assigned domain and ensuring its spiritual propriety.  It is this concept of tahara that the institution of the red heifer symbolizes, and that the Torah sought to underscore in the wake of the tragedy of Korach's revolt.


            We may suggest yet another basis for associating the story of Korach with the laws of the heifer by viewing Korach's uprising from a different perspective.  Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik (Rabbi Abraham Besdin, "Reflections of the Rav," volume 1, chapter 13) describes Korach's revolt as "the common-sense rebellion against Torah authority."  Rashi (Bemidbar 16:1), cites a passage from the Midrash describing how Korach ridiculed certain laws in an attempt to challenge Moshe's authority to interpret God's will.  According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, "for the entire congregation is holy" expressed a conviction not of intrinsic equality of stature, but rather of intellectual equality.  All those who stood at Sinai, Korach insisted, reserved the right to interpret the Torah received at Sinai. 


            We may perhaps understand the introduction of the red heifer in this context as God's response to Korach's theological revolution.  In the Midrash and classic commentaries, the institution of para aduma constitutes the quintessential chok, a statute whose rationale eludes human comprehension.  Some sources focus on the specific enigma that while one becomes ritually pure by having the heifer's ashes sprinkled on him, everyone involved in the process of preparing the ashes or the sprinkling itself becomes impure (Tanchuma Yashan, 23; Midrash Tehillim 9).  Ramban, in his opening comments to the parasha, points to the anomaly that the kohen must slaughter the cow outside the area of the Mishkan; normally the Torah strictlyforbids conducting any sacrificial ritual outside the Mishkan. 


            In another Midrash, the very concept of purification by sprinkling cow's ashes is the source of wonder:


"A cergentile asked Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai, 'These things that you do appear as some sort of sorcery!  You bring a cow, burn it, crush it, take its ashes, sprinkle on one who had been defiled by dead body two or three drops and then tell him that he is pure!'  He answered him, 'Have you ever seen one who was stricken by the force of lichen?'  He said to him, 'Yes.'  He said, 'And what do they do for him?'  He said to him, 'They bring roots [of a plant], smoke them underneath him, pour water and it [i.e. the illness] runs away.'  He said to him, 'Your ears should hear what comes forth from your mouth!  This force is impurity… They sprinkle upon it purifying waters, and it runs away…'  After he [the gentile] left, the students asked him [Rabban Yochanan],  'Our rabbi, him you answered easily; but what do you say to us?'  He said to them, 'I swear that the corpse does not defile and the waters do not purify.  But the Almighty said, I instituted a statute, I issued a decree, you are forbidden to violate My decrees.'" (Bemidbar Rabba, 19:8)


Rabban Yochanan tells his disciples that we have neither the ability nor the need to uncover the mystery behind this ritual.  Indeed, the Sages taught that even King Solomon himself emerged empty-handed from his attempts to identify the underlying rationale of the red heifer.


            Para aduma, then, perhaps signifies the limit of human comprehension with regard to divine law.  As much as man is encouraged to explore, study, theorize and inquire, he must maintain an awareness of the inadequacy of the human intellect to fully comprehend divine wisdom.  Korach's intelligence (see Rashi, beginning of Parashat Korach) prompted him to challenge Moshe's legal authority; he felt he could apply his own reasoning and intuition in determining God's will.  The red heifer represents the fallacy of Korach's claim, and underscores the inherent limitation of man's intellectual capabilities.


            In this light we may further develop the association drawn by the Sages between the red heifer and the sin of the golden calf:


This is analogous to a maidservant's son who dirties the royal palace; the king said, let his mother come and clean the filth.  So did the Almighty say, let the cow come to atone for the incident of the calf.  (Bemidbar Rabba 19:8)


Rashi, after his standard commentary to chapter 19, cites at length the homiletic interpretations of Rabbi Moshe ha-Darshan to the specific laws regarding the red heifer, demonstrating their symbolic reference to the golden calf. 


            Wherein lies the conceptual relationship between the golden calf and red heifer?


            The answer perhaps emerges from a careful reading of one Midrashic passage (cited in the work, "Derashot Ibn Shuib," as well as in "Torah Sheleima" to 19:2) concerning the para aduma's role in atoning for the calf.  Among the requirements of the red heifer is that it must be temima, free of blemishes (19:2).  The Midrash explains this requirement as follows: "Since they [the Israelites] did not walk with the Creator with 'temimut' [when they worshipped the golden calf], it must therefore be 'temima.'"  The Midrash here works with a play on words, associating two different (albeit related) meanings of the expression, temimut.  Besides its basic meaning, as physical wholeness or perfection, the term also denotes innocent faith and unquestioning loyalty (see especially Devarim 18:13.)  In fact, in a different Midrash, the Sages employ the expression temimut to describe the attitude required towards the enigma latent within the para aduma.  As cited earlier, the Midrash Tehillim (9) tells of King Solomon's failed attempt to decipher the logical underpinnings of this law.  God then responds: "Act with uprightness, act with 'temimut' - I issued a decree, I instituted a statute, and no one can question it."  The law of the red heifer, then, requires an element of "innocence," passive acceptance and unconditional fidelity, that atones for the lack of "innocence" that surfaced with the sin of the golden calf.


            Several commentators have understood the sin of the calf not as outright idolatry - after all, how could a nation that beheld God's Revelation just forty days earlier worship another deity?! - but rather as misdirected human initiative in the service of God.  Benei Yisrael independently decided to fashion a physical representation of the Almighty.  For this reason, according to several views of the Sages and the later commentators, Benei Yisrael earned atonement for this sin by constructing the Tabernacle.  Throughout its narrative of the construction (in Parshiyot Vayakhel-Pekudei), the Torah repeatedly emphasizes that Benei Yisrael built the Mishkan and its various accessories "ka'asher tziva Hashem" - precisely as God had commanded.  They atone for their error by submissively following orders and obeying God's word rather than following their own intuition and independently deciding on the proper mode of worship.


            In one sense, perhaps, Korach's insurrection reintroduced the fundamental error of the golden calf.  Though Benei Yisrael built the Mishkan precisely "as God had commanded Moshe," they now seek to use it as they wish, disregarding the restrictions outlined in Sefer Vayikra.  They reject Moshe's authority and claim the right to individually determine how to serve God.  This is an appropriate time, then, for a reminder of the para aduma, to atone for presumptuous innovation through the humble submission to, and unconditional acceptance of, God's law.


The Red Heifer and the Thirty-eight "Missing" Years


            Until now, we have discussed different possible connections linking the law of the red heifer with the incident of Korach as a basis for their textual proximity.  An entirely different approach, however, would be to identify the relationship between the para aduma and that which follows this chapter, rather than the preceding parasha.


            The section of the para aduma is followed by chapter 20, which tells of the death of Miriam, the sudden threat posed by a shortage of water, and the decree issued against Moshe and Aharon prohibiting them from entering Canaan.  When studying this chapter, we are initially struck less by its content than by its chronology.  Virtually all commentators agree that chapter 20 takes us on a giant, 38-year leap forward, from the second year of the nation's travel through the wilderness to the fortieth.  Several compelling indications to this effect appear in the text (see Rav Moshe Aberman's VBM shiur on this subject from 5757, available in the VBM archives).  This means that the Torah includes no record whatsoever of the interim thirty-eight years.  As far as we know, all that occurs during these years is the death of the generation of the scouts and the rise of the new generation that will enter Canaan.  This period, running from Korach's uprising to the death of Miriam, is represented by a single chapter - chapter 19, the laws of the para aduma.  Perhaps, then, we must search for some connection between the red heifer ritual and these thirty-eight years.


            Instinctively, the notion of "purification" might come to mind.  The sprinkling of the heifer's ashes cleanses the individual of ritual impurity, enabling him to enter the Tabernacle and interact with the Shekhina.  Similarly, Benei Yisrael's wandering in the desert, as decreed in response to the sin of the scouts, is meant as a period of spiritual regeneration, to prepare the nation for entry into the Promised Land.  The incident of the spies revealed that Benei Yisrael were not prepared for life in God's country; an extended period of purification was necessary for them to develop the required trust in God's ability to protect them as they conquer and settle Canaan.  In this sense, perhaps, the purification process required of one who had contracted tum'a serves as an accurate, symbolidescription of the thirty-eight-year sojourn through the wilderness.


            Rav Soloveitchik, however, in an elaborate discourse on this issue and the nature of para aduma in general, points to the particular theme of death and Judaism's response to it in explaining the relevanof this chapter to the "missing" thirty-eight years (Rabbi Abraham Besdin's "Reflections of the Rav," vol. 2, chapter 11).  The ashes of the para aduma are necessary in only one instance of ritual impurity: contact with the remains of a human being.  Other forms of tum'a are resolved through immersion in the mikve or natural spring.  Contact with human mortality, Rav Soloveitchik explained, is a particularly traumatic experience, because man directly encounters his own death and impermanence.  One can overcome this trauma only by turning to God Himself for reassurance.  One therefore receives purification from the kohen, the representative of the Almighty Himself.  The sprinkling of the para aduma symbolizes God's purification of the individual that has experienced the most morbid of all forms of impurity.  Only one's absolute dependence on God can help him properly deal with the effects of such an encounter with death.

            Rabbi Soloveitchik explains the relevance of this concept to the thirty-eight year period, which saw little more than the death of the generation that left Egypt, as follows:


The symbol of this mournful period is the para aduma, which removes defilements derived from human death.  It represents a triumph over death, an affirmation of life, and qualifies one to resume participation in matters of kedusha.  As explained earlier, God is the ultimate purifier who helps us overcome the depression of morbidity.  Para aduma is an appropriate transition between the period of rejection and death, and the resumption of divine communication… in the fortieth year of their wanderings.


The Torah bridges the gap between the doomed generation of the spies and the generation that enters the Promised Land with the message of the para aduma: the Jewish response to death, which entails turning to the Almighty for reassurance and relying on His infinite compassion.


            We might add to this approach the comments of one of our early commentators, Rabbenu Yossef Bekhor Shor (from the Tosafist period).  He enumerates several stringent measures unique to the ritual impurity generated by a human corpse, which we do not find in other types of tum'a.  First and foremost, as mentioned, impurity contracted from contact with a corpse requires the sprinkling of the ashes of the red heifer for purification to occur.  Second, one who contracted tum'a from a corpse requires a seven-day period of purification, while many other forms of impurity require only a single day.  Third, one becomes impure even when situated under the same roof as a corpse; no actual contact is required.  Rabbi Bekhor Shor explains this unique stringency with a bold thesis: the Torah seeks to discourage people from coming in contact with the dead.  Although in cases of family tragedy and the like one is required to tend to the needs of the deceased, as a general rule the Torah frowns upon excessive preoccupation with death.  One is to respond to death by focusing on life, by doubling his efforts to continue forward even in the face of calamity.


            The laws of tum'at met (ritual impurity generated by a corpse), then, reflect the Torah's attitude discouraging excessive dwelling on death.  Accordingly, the Torah says nothing about the thirty-eight years of death in the wilderness; from its perspective, these years simply marked the transition from one generation to the next.  In effect, the Torah transforms the otherwise disheartening, even morbid, demise of a generation into a natural progression from parents to children, from the Exodus and Revelation at Sinai to the long-awaited entry into Canaan.  This bridge between doom and hope, between death and rejuvenation, is formed by the red heifer, a powerful symbol of the Torah's insistence on focusing on life, even when confronting death.


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