I once worked with a bar mitzvah student who was thrilled to learn that even the 11th century commentator Rashi didn’t understand the meaning of the ritual of the red heifer. He figured that if Rashi couldn’t make sense of it, then he wasn’t required to either.
In the Torah, the priest is told to sacrifice a red heifer with no blemishes, burn the carcass, and mix the ashes with water. By so doing, the priest is rendered impure until the evening. These “waters of lustration” are then sprinkled on someone who was rendered impure by touching a dead body, thereby making the person pure again.
Why would preparing this mixture, which is used to purify someone who touched a dead body, cause the person making the mixture impure? And why does touching a dead person make someone impure in the first place? Since the Bible doesn’t specify how the person died, we can’t chalk it up to avoiding disease, because not everyone dies from diseases. And why does sprinkling this water on someone suddenly render them pure again?
Something else must be going on, and I think it’s psychological. Let me tell you a story.
Many years ago on a Friday evening, a friend invited me to a Jews for Jesus service. They took Jewish ritual and Christian ritual and mashed them together. It was unsettling and, to me, unsuccessful in creating a meaningful religious experience. (OK, the simple truth is that I hated it.)
All the next week, I felt as it I needed to take a shower. I felt somehow unclean, and unhappy. So the next Friday night I found a synagogue and went to services. And it was enough. (Well, clearly not enough, because week after week I kept going, and going, and going, and now here I am 29 years later, a rabbi.)
Some things don’t make sense, but we do them anyway. We trust that our instincts will guide us in the right direction. I trust that I can believe in God because, well, because I feel God in my bones, in my breath, in my being. I don’t have proof, and that’s OK.
And the ritual of the red heifer? Sometimes we need to perform a ritual to help us deal with the vicissitudes of life. If a ritual doesn’t exist, we can create one. And as a working rabbi, I know that sometimes the person who creates the ritual also needs cleansing, also needs to shake off the residue of someone else’s pain. And as with the priest, sometimes all it takes is time.
My favorite part of this passage is the premise that it begins with: A person had been with someone who died, and it affected them. So another person went to the trouble of helping them deal with it. And the Torah gave them a ritual that they could use. Together.