Parshat Hukat: Sacred statutes

One of the most profound mysteries of the Bible is the rite of the red cow, called a hok because it is an illogical Divine decree, concerning which we may not even speculate in an attempt to understand it.

parshat hukat 88 298 (photo credit: )
parshat hukat 88 298
(photo credit: )
"This is the statute of the law which God commanded, saying, 'Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring you a red cow, faultless, without a blemish and upon which there never came a yoke'" (Numbers 19:1-2). One of the most profound mysteries of the Bible is the rite of the red cow, called a hok (Hebrew for statute) because it is an illogical Divine decree, concerning which we may not even speculate in an attempt to understand it (Numbers 19:1, Rashi ad loc.). Detailed in the first 22 verses of our Torah reading, the ceremony certainly sounds strange to the modern ear: a completely red cow, without blemish and upon which no yoke has been brought, shall be entirely slaughtered outside the encampment of Israel; cedarwood, hyssop and a scarlet thread shall be cast into the burning pyre of ashes and a "personage of purity" (ish tahor) shall gather the ashes in a sacred place, mix them with spring water (mayim hayim), waters of life, and use the mixture to purify those who have been contaminated by contact with a corpse. What can we possibly make of such a primitive sounding ritual? We must be mindful of the fact that all impurities other than a death impurity find their purification by the defiled individual's immersing himself/herself in a mikve, a gathering of freshly running spring water or specially collected life-giving rainwater; in effect, in all these instances, the defiled individual actually purifies him/herself! Only in this rite of the red cow does the kohen, representing God Himself, 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 ultimately redeem us from death. And from this perspective, the symbolism of the red cow ritual begins to make sense. A cow is the consummate symbol of life, cow's mother-milk serving as the universal expression of maternal nurturing of her young; red is likewise the color of blood, and blood is the life-force, the very nefesh of the living organism. However, although human beings come in various shapes, sizes, personalities and powers, the angel of death ultimately conquers them all, because the scarlet thread of human sin condemns each of us to the common destiny of mortality. The "personage of purity" then gathers the ashes of the remains, mixes them with the life-giving waters of the Divine and, born again, purified life emerges even from the surrealistic specter of death itself. This symbolism of the red cow has assumed new significance for me since my recent trip to Frankfurt and Berlin. Ohr Torah Stone's Joseph Straus Rabbinical Seminary has sent close to two hundred rabbis and their families to communities throughout the world, with six of our graduates presently in Germany. About a year ago we sponsored two inspirational events, one in Frankfurt and one in Berlin. While in Berlin, I took advantage of the opportunity to visit their newly completed Holocaust Memorial at the very center of the city, not far from the last bunker where the mad fuehrer committed suicide. The open-air memorial consists of 2,711 stones, monuments of various shapes and sizes. Walking among the narrow, massive slabs of stone, one becomes lost within a giant cemetery, feeling helplessly and hopelessly insignificant within a maze of monuments whose eerie, death-imbedded caskets seem to have overtaken world and life; one then descends into a netherworld of hell with pictures and life stories of Holocaust victims. I stumbled away from the experience feeling as though I had just awakened from a horrific nightmare. The symbolism of the monuments continued to haunt me for a long time after I returned to Efrat; after all, those who lost loved ones in the Holocaust don't even have grave-site monuments to weep over. Each empty stone screams out with any name, with every name, with my name and with my children's names, because a part of each human being was killed in those death camps. But I also came away from the experience feeling cheated by the Memorial. Something was missing, the essence was missing, the victorious ending was missing. Because the Jewish people won the war which Hitler tried to wage against us. Yes, he succeeded in destroying six million of us, but as he records in Mein Kampf, he wasn't waging a war against six million Jews. He was waging a war against the last Jew, against Judaism. And we won that war. Alas, the brilliantly alive red cow which was the Jewish people, a people who nurtured the world with the milk of the morality of the 10 Commandments and the milk of human kindness of "you shall love the stranger" and "you shall love your neighbor like yourself" was, to a large extent, tragically and inexplicably slaughtered beyond the human encampment in Auschwitz and Treblinka. But then the Almighty God, the "Personage of Purity" Himself gathered the ashes, Himself mixed them with living waters of rebirth and Himself transformed those ashes into the fertile soil of the re-created sovereign State of Israel. And the "Personage of Purity" Himself mixed the ashes with the life-giving well-springs of Torah, our tree of eternal life, and revived Torah centers and Daf Yomi Talmud study groups to an unprecedented and unparalleled degree all over the world. Yes, Judaism is re-awakening, even in the failed fuehrer's own home city of Berlin, where three new yeshivot (Torah study academies) have been dedicated during the past several years. Imagine the historical irony in the fact that the only two growing Jewish communities in the world today are Israel and Germany! Most importantly, the Bible promised us 4,000 years ago that despite exile, persecution and destruction, God would sprinkle upon us His reviving waters of purity and rebirth and would restore us to our land, our law and our lore. "Thus says the Lord your God… I will open your graves and cause you to come up out of your graves and bring you into the Land of Israel…" (Ezekiel 37:13,14). The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.