One of the most perplexing mysteries of the Bible is the rite of the red heifer, called a hok (Hebrew for "statute") because it belongs to the group of divine decrees which human logic has been unable to fathom.
Detailed in the first 22 verses of our Torah reading, the ceremony certainly sounds strange: a heifer which is completely red, without blemish and upon which no yoke has been brought, shall be slaughtered outside the encampment of Israel and burned whole; cedar wood, hyssop and a scarlet thread shall be cast into the burning pyre, and a "pure person" (ish tahor) shall gather the ashes in a sacred place, mix them with living water (mayim hayim) and use the mixture to purify those who have been contaminated by contact with the dead.
What can we make of such a primitive-sounding ritual?
We must be mindful of the fact that all impurities other than a death impurity find purification by immersion in a mikve - a gathering of freshly running spring water or specially collected rainwater; in effect, the defiled individual purifies him/herself! Only in this rite of the red heifer does the kohen, representing God, effectuate the purification. It is as though the Bible is teaching us that we can save ourselves from many of our weaknesses, we can rise above many of our temptations, but only God can redeem us from death.
From this perspective, the symbolism of the red heifer ritual begins to make sense. A heifer is the consummate symbol of life, its milk serving as the universal expression of maternal nurturing; red is likewise the color of blood, and blood is the life-force, the very nefesh of living organisms. However, although human beings come in various shapes, sizes, personalities and powers - they can be as tall and proud as the cedar or as mean and humble as the hyssop - the angel of death ultimately conquers them all, because the scarlet thread of human sin condemns each of us to mortality.
The "pure person" then gathers the ashes, mixes them with the life-giving waters of the Divine, and born-again, purified life emerges from the specter of death itself.
This symbolism has assumed new significance for me since a recent trip to Berlin. Ohr Torah Stone's Joseph Straus Rabbinical Seminary has sent close to 300 rabbis and their families to communities throughout the world, with eight of our graduates presently in Germany. While in Berlin, I visited the newly completed Holocaust Memorial at the center of the city, not far from the bunker in which the Fuehrer committed suicide. The open-air memorial consists of 2,711 stones of various shapes and sizes. Walking among the narrow, massive slabs, one becomes lost in a giant cemetery, feeling helplessly insignificant within a maze of monuments whose eerie, death-embedded caskets seem to have overtaken life itself; one then descends into a netherworld where pictures and stories of Holocaust victims evoke all the potential that was snuffed out, cruelly torn from the tree of life by monstrous hands. How many medical and scientific advances were simply burned to ashes in Auschwitz! How many Nobel Prize winners. How many giants of humanity!
I stumbled away from the experience feeling as though I had just awakened from a nightmare. The monuments continued to haunt me for months; after all, those who lost loved ones in the Holocaust don't even have gravesites to weep over. Each empty stone screams out with every name, with my name and with my children's names because a part of every human being was killed in those camps.
But I also came away feeling cheated by the memorial; the essence was missing. Because, you see, the Jewish people won the war Hitler waged against us. Yes, he succeeded in destroying six million, but as he records in Mein Kampf, he wasn't waging war against six million Jews; he was waging war against every last Jew, against Judaism itself. And in that he failed.
Yes, we won that war. After the brilliantly alive "red heifer" - a metaphor for the Jewish people, who nurture the world with the milk of morality (the Ten Commandments) and human kindness ("you shall love the stranger" and "you shall love your neighbor like yourself") - was to a large extent slaughtered beyond the "human encampment" in Auschwitz and Treblinka, the Almighty God, the "Pure Person" Himself, gathered the ashes, mixed them with the living waters of rebirth, and Himself transformed those ashes into the re-created State of Israel and the revived Torah centers and daf yomi Talmud study groups all over the world.
"Thus says the Lord your Godâ€¦.I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves and bring you into the Land of Israelâ€¦ And I shall put My spirit in you and you shall live, and I shall place you in your land" (Ezekiel 37:13,14).
Take note: there are 2,711 stones in the memorial, but when artist Peter Eisenman was asked about the significance of that number, he said it was only arbitrary.
Oh, really? There are 2,711 folio pages in the Babylonian Talmud, and this is more than coincidence. Discovered alongside Hitler's body was a Tractate Pesahim, which tells of the festival of Jewish freedom and redemption!
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.