The Paradox of the Red Heifer Ritual

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The mystical ritual of the red heifer is a chok, a commandment we follow not because it is rational, logical or moral, but because it is Divinely ordained. The very notion of the priest purifying an individual who has been defiled by contact with a dead body, through the process of sprinkling him or her with the ashes of a red heifer mixed with spring waters, seems irrational.

The ritual is even paradoxical because those priests involved in preparing this mixture are in fact themselves defiled by the process. How can a substance with the capacity to purify the defiled simultaneously defile those who are pure?


Were the ritual of the red heifer limited to its function of purification, it would belong in the Book of Leviticus, alongside the biblical portions about impurities and purification. Why does the Torah place
it in the Book of Numbers, right after the rebellion of Korach and immediately before the transgression of Moses at the rock?

Moreover, the portion of Chukat is read near the yahrzeit of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem
M. Schneerson, the greatest Jewish leader of the 20th century. The red heifer ritual provides a fascinating commentary on his life.

The kohein, or priest, is our teacher and guardian, our religious inspiration and guide; his special garb reflects his unique vocation. The shoulder strap of his apron (ephod) and the breast plate (choshen mishpat) worn next to his heart bear the names of the 12 Tribes of Israel, demonstrating his love and responsibility for the nation. And inscribed on the head plate placed on his forehead, which is the seat of the mind, are the words, “sacred unto the Lord,” expressing his commitment to teaching Torah and sacred living in accordance with God’s commandments.

Clearly, love and commitment to nation combined with intellectual propagation of Torah are the twin building blocks of the kohein’s vocation. How are these ideals related to the mystery of the red heifer? For nearly 300 years, Eastern European Jews had two models of religious leadership: the Lithuanian rosh yeshiva and the Chasidic rebbe. The former devoted most of his attention to the priestly head plate (tzitz), the intellectual pursuit of Torah, while the latter dedicated most of his attention to the priestly breastplate and shoulder strap, the pastoral concerns of his flock.

I’d like to suggest that the paradox of the red heifer ritual — the fact that it is the very mixture that purifies those who are defiled while defiling the people involved in the act of purifying — will serve to bring together the kohein’s love for his people with his commitment to teach them. After all, if my friend falls into a mud pit, will I not naturally become sullied and muddied myself in the process of lifting him out? Built into the very enterprise of purifying the defiled is the fact that the purifier himself must be touched by some of the impurity!

This is why the kohein must always bless the nation “out of love,” and bring his love for his people to his
vocation of teaching them Torah. When such a leader truly loves every Jew, he assumes a new level of responsibility. In his desire to rescue fellow Jews from contact with spiritual death, he must willingly sacrifice some of his own comforts and even some of his spirituality.

A loving leader must be ready to leave the religious comfort of yeshiva and a Torah-true community to make his way to the farthest hinterlands to infuse them with the light of spirituality. This is what God tells Moses, according to the Talmud, when he sends him away from his Torah study, his unique rendezvous with the Divine at the time of the Golden Calf: “Get down from the supernal heights of Mount Sinai and go down to the errant Jews worshiping the Golden Calf; the only reason I bestowed greatness upon you, Moses, was for the sake of Israel; if your nation is sinning, what need have I of you?”

From the beginning of his ministry, Moses is totally committed to his people. When he kills the Egyptian taskmaster to defend an Israelite slave, he sacrifices his position as an Egyptian prince and risks his own life. However, the endless carping, ingratitude and insurrections of the Israelites finally wears him down, so that eventually, he calls the Israelites “rebels,” striking the rock instead of speaking to it, which we understand to be an act of displaced anger against his stiff-necked nation.

Herein lies the connection between the two parts of our biblical portion, the ritual of the red heifer and Moses’ sin and punishment. Once a leader loses even the smallest amount of his capacity to love his people, even if his feelings are justified by the shabby and derelict way they have rebelliously treated him, he can no longer lead them.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a profound scholar and leader of his people. The timeless and constant message of the Chabad movement is love, as taught in Pirkei Avot: “Be among the disciples of Aaron, love humanity, and with that love, you will bring everyone close to Torah.”

The preservation of the eternal Torah requires a people strong enough and determined enough to devote their lives to it, and even to risk their spiritual lives for it. The Lubavitcher Rebbe raised an army of emissaries, shluchim whose love for and commitment to our nation is so great that they readily leave study halls, their families and communities for the farthest recesses of the globe to bring Jews back to our Torah.

When I asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a blessing before leaving New York City for the uncharted hills of Efrat, he said: “The Almighty will extend your ministry in Efrat until the coming of the Redeemer, but I must send emissaries all over the world who will be modern on the outside and Chabad on the inside.”

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