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The Red Heifer

Nehama Leibowitz says this is one of the most mystifying parts of the Torah, "one of the matters which even the wisdom of the wisest of men failed to fathom." Certainly, you can spend a lot of time just trying to sort out how it works and then even more on what its purpose is. Uncleanliness accompanies the making of the red heifer, its administration and the purpose for its administration, but this uncleanliness is obviously more in the nature of uncanniness -- a sense of confrontation with divine and fundamental mysteries. They system seems almost like a game of tag but with touchbacks allowed. Left unchecked everyone would become unclean -- and today with no red heifer we are all unclean with no chance of ever achieving ritual cleanliness.

When Nehama Leibowitz tackles the question of the purpose of the red heifer ritual, she tells the story of the rational explanation given to a non Jew, that the defilement is a sort of disease of the spirit which the red heifer's ashes cure. But to the Jews she explained that the ashes have no intrinsic curative properties. Rather they are commandments, and following them refines the human soul.

But there is another question easily left unseen amidst these puzzles. Often the purpose for which we do something does not capture its whole effect, how it shapes a society.

So the question left unanswered is what would it be like to live in a society that observed this ritual uncleanliness? In a world of battles, diseases that would carry off the young and infirm, and death in childbirth the chances of becoming unclean on a regular basis would be high. Whoever touches any part of a dead body or a grave or is in the tent of one who dies -- all become unclean for seven days and forever if they do not or can not submit to the ritual of the red heifer. What would this do to a society?

In a way it is like a super-Shivah period, except that there would be no visits to console the bereaved. During the seven days of uncleanliness they would be left alone, and, if left, alone it seems likely they would turn inward intensely. They would have time to talk among themselves, recall the dead person, tell tales, confront the mystery of death. They would have time and space in which to adjust to their new status. Never again in life will they look upon the face of their loved one, hear her voice, feel his touch.

In a sense this is the counterpart of the period of uncleanliness in Tazria in which a woman enters a long period of uncleanliness upon the birth of a child. There she who has acted as a creator, bringing forth life, is given time and space to confront the divine, this new relationship and her new status. For the rest of their lives, they will be bound together.

Recently, after a death, I was telling a non-Jewish friend about Jewish rituals of mourning. He said: "I wish we had that. We need something like this. These days you're expected to be back at work, to get on with life, to get over it. No one wants to see your cry, to know you are grieving. You feel you have to apologize for the depth of your pain." So beyond the bizarre aspects of the rituals connected with the red heifer there may be something fundamentally human and humane.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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