The Power of Red (Extract)

Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. The Torah portion Hukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1, is read on Shabbat, July 5 I have a certain fondness for red heifers, of the type mentioned at the beginning of the Torah portion Hukat. In part, this derives from the fact that my kids' sports teams, at Gann Academy-The New Jewish High School of Greater Boston, were all named "Red Heifers," and I recall helping my daughter look on-line to order the school mascot - a red cow costume. I am not the only one fond of such cows. (Indeed, cow is a better word than heifer, for there is nothing in the biblical account to suggest that the cow in question must be a heifer, that is, without having calved.) In March 1997 a red calf named Melody, born at Kfar Hasidim in Israel, raised significant expectations among those with messianic tendencies, since the ashes of a red heifer are required to attain ritual purity, and would thus be a prerequisite for rebuilding the Temple. They welcomed this birth as the beginning of a messianic period, when the Third Temple would be built, but others worried that unwarranted messianic fervor would unleash World War Three. In any case, these feelings were short-lived, since according to rabbinic tradition the cow must be absolutely and totally red, and after several weeks, white hairs were found on this one's tail and nose. Yet, interest in creating a red heifer continues, with various rumors still circulating on the Internet concerning how to use genetic modification to do so. There are other reasons that the red heifer commandment is important in the popular imagination. It is considered by many to be the most mysterious of biblical rituals. In Numbers 19:2, the Hebrew words hukat hatorah are used to describe the red heifer procedure. Hukah, from the root hkk, "to incise," means "a law," but much rabbinic interpretation contrasts it with other words meaning "law," and suggests that this is a commandment whose meaning or interpretation is obscure. This understanding is embodied in the traditional commentary of Rashi (1040-1105), who follows rabbinic precedent and compares it to a royal decree that simply has to be followed - the reasons behind the decree are irrelevant. Its mystery is compounded by the fact, also noted by the classical rabbis, that it makes the impure person pure, while the pure people involved in the latter stages of preparing it become ritually impure! What a paradox! Yet, like most rituals, that of the red heifer makes sense. The main function of the red cow is to be burned, along with other material, and then to be mixed with free-flowing water, which is commonly used in biblical purification rituals, to create a potion that effects ritual purification. Anyone who has come in contact with a human corpse or who has recovered from what Bible translations call leprosy - a potpourri of very serious skin diseases, but not Hansen's disease, which is what leprosy is known as today, and which has totally different symptoms - must be purified through this potion, which is considered part of a purification or decontamination offering. Extract of article in Issue 6, July 7, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.