“This is the statute of the Torah”
Tammuz 2, 5779/July 5, 2019
Our sages long ago established the understanding that the text of the Five Books of Moses, (the written Torah) does not necessarily follow a chronological order. For different reasons the Torah may record an event out of the actual time sequence in which it originally occurred. Bearing this in mind we need to ask ourselves why the laws of the ashes of the red heifer are first explicated here in the opening of parashat Chukat, especially in light of the traditionally held notion that the laws of the red heifer were first conveyed to Israel all the way back in Exodus, just days after Israel exited Egypt and crossed the Sea of Reeds, even before receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. This occurred at Marah, when the people cried out for water and Moshe cast a piece of wood in the water rendering it potable, at which point Torah says “There He gave them a statute and an ordinance, and there He tested them.” (Exodus 15:25) The “statute” our sages teach us, was none other than the laws of the red heifer.
If the ordinance of the red heifer appears first as an obscure reference at the very beginning of Israel’s journey through the desert, and again, explicitly, at the beginning of the conclusion of Israel’s journey in the desert, then we can understand the very essence of the ashes of the red heifer to be a kind of bookends to Israel’s forty year desert experience. But what does it signify?
The ashes of the red heifer which can metaphysically purify an individual who has come in contact with a corpse are a signal from G-d that we mortal humans are endowed with the ability to transcend death. That is, we, the sons and daughters of Adam, are not prisoners to the inevitability of our own mortality nor the ravages of time. Life, Torah is teaching us, extends beyond the finality of mortality: there is life after death, both in this world and the next.
It is little wonder then that the laws of the red heifer which open this week’s Torah reading are followed immediately by the death of Miriam, G-d’s rebuke of Moshe and Aharon at Merivah, and then the stunningly poignant demise of Aharon on Mount Hor, before the entire assembly of Israel. The inclusion of the red heifer here in Torah serves as a gentle comfort and reminder to Israel that, despite the ineviability of death, even of our most beloved leaders, with whom life without them is unimaginable, life does, in fact, go on, both our lives as individuals, and the life of the nation.
Moshe, of whom we are told, was unique in fully understanding the deep metaphysical meanings of the red heifer, immediately understood the message that G-d was conveying to Israel, and immediately following G-d’s declaration of Moshe’s own demise in the desert, “Moshe sent messengers from Kadesh to the king of Edom: “So says your brother, Israel, ‘You know of all the hardship that has befallen us.” (Numbers 20:14) Moshe understood that the seemingly timeless nature of Israel’s desert journey had come to an end, and that now was the time for Israel to press forward, to enter the promised land, with or without Moshe. For forty years time for Israel was not marked by the ticking of a clock or markings on a calendar, but by the word of G-d and the clouds of glory which instructed Israel when to move forward and when to stay still. But now it was time to emerge from this almost idyllic existence and enter into the reality of life for which Israel and Torah were truly intended. The well of Miriam vanished with the death of Miriam. The clouds of glory vanished with the death of Aharon. And the manna, too, would evaporate forever with the death of Moshe.
Yet, despite the death of Israel’s beloved leaders, and despite Israel’s emergence from the rarified existence with which G-d had swaddled his infant nation for forty years, life for Israel was only now beginning. After forty years of sublimely suspended animation, Israel, by the end of Chukat, has fought its way to the banks of the Jordan river, facing Jericho, ready to enter the land and fully take upon itself the liberating and empowering yoke of Torah in the land G-d has promised.
The ashes of the red heifer which can purify and render harmless the otherwise intractable blemish of death and the illusion of time’s mastery over us, is Israel’s gateway to the future. The Holy Temple, whose inner courtyard we can only enter after being purified via the ashes of the red heifer, is G-d’s ultimate testimony to Israel that death, itself, is bound by time, be we mortals can enter into the portals of eternity when we enter the gates of the Holy Temple. Just as the ashes of the red heifer heralded the conclusion of Israel’s exile in the desert, so too may the renewal of the ordinance of the red heifer, soon in our day, herald the building of the Holy Temple, the final end of Israel’s exile and the full flowering of Israel’s redemption. Amen.
THE TEMPLE INSTITUTE