The Paradox of the Red Heifer

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

A red heifer sits on my desk silently watching me work and never interrupting. She has no idea that Torah explains that an unblemished parah adumah (red heifer) provided the only source of ritual purification in ancient times from contact with a corpse, nor that we read about the parah adumah this Shabbat in preparation for Passover because in ancient Israel needed to be in a state of ritual purity to bring the Pesach offering. She is blissfully unaware because she is a bright red plush toy.

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 Mishkan (the wilderness Tabernacle) or later the Mikdash (the Temple in Jerusalem) until they were purified. Ritual cleansing was affected when a priest sprinkled them with water into which were dissolved the ashes of a parah adumah.

The Torah says: “This is the ritual law that Adonai 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” (Numbers 19:2–6).

There is a strange paradox to the purifying ashes of the red heifer. Those who came into contact with the red heifer’s ashes through its preparation, burning and cleanup are rendered impure. How can something that is innately purifying render those who deal with it impure? I don’t pretend to understand this paradox. Even King Solomon, according to the Sages (Numbers Rabbah 19:3) admitted, “I have labored to understand God’s teaching, and have understood it all except the ritual of the red heifer.”

But consider this: One who faces a medical, emotional or personal challenge that evokes pain, anxiety and fear needs the love of those closest to them. For the one who receives such nurturing love and sustaining support, it is emotionally cleansing and spiritually purifying. At the same time, those who generously give such love and support inevitably absorb some of the pain, anxiety and fear — they experience a measure of the suffering they lessen. Yet who would do otherwise? Theirs is the very touch of God. Could there be a greater blessing amid such mystery?

Rabbi Amy Scheinerman is community hospice rabbi in Howard County. 

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here