Rabbi Goldie Milgram
, Founder and Director of
, and co-editor of
Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning
This week’s portion appears to contain instructions for witchcraft. One finds a red heifer, known as the
(though none seem to exist), burns it, throwing into the burning some cedar wood, hyssop, and something unclear (to all) in Hebrew that involves the color scarlet. Next, gather the ashes, add some water, and use hyssop to sprinkle drops of it onto the tent, involved personal items and also upon those who have had contact with the dead – in order to purify them. So what’s that all about?
This is the portion in which the Prophetess Miriam dies. The people waited for her to return from the camp after her exile for questioning Moses’ decision to take another wife. She was back for a short while, yet dies a very few Torah columns later. The Israelites loved her so much – might they have approached her in death to kiss or touch she who helped to lead them out of slavery, just one last time? Aaron, anointed High Priest, will also die later in this chapter as well. These are huge losses – imagine the impact upon those who found them, who cared for them, who had to prepare their bodies.
Have you ever touched a corpse? Many do every day. Firefighters removing a body from a burning building so the family can have a closure, nurses aides and perhaps ourselves: beside our loved ones in their last minutes, medical teams gathering organs for donation (HODS.org is a Jewish guide to organ donation); in Israel the ZAKA teams –
Zihuy Korbanot Ason
Disaster Victim Identification
, are volunteers who scrape up the remains of those blown up by terrorists; police, students and dorm counselors who kneel beside a student who has overdosed to check for a pulse; medics on the battlefield; members of the Hevra Kaddishah who tenderly prepare a Jewish body for its return to nourish the cycle of life, and more.
How do we recover from these poignant, potent, often disturbing contacts? Is there a Jewish time to give honor to those who take on these many degrees of holy support in the hardest of ways?
Using the ashes of a red heifer for healing initially sounds pretty esoteric. Spritzing, immersing, anointing, casting, drinking – all sorts of actions proscribed in the Bible – are odd and out of bounds to many of us. Leaders are anointed with oil in Exodus 30:30, and also the tabernacle and its furniture in Exodus 40:9 and there are many more examples. Water rituals include drawing and pouring (Shoev) in many passages including Genesis 24:13-19, 43, 1Samuel 9:11, Isaiah 12:3 and Talmud Sukkot 41a-53a. Washing (Rakhatz) appears in Number 8:7, Exodus 19: 10, Exodus 30:19-21; while drinking and testing with various included substances (Sotah) are found in Numbers 5:24, gazing (Ereh) is in Ezekiel 1:1, and casting into (Tashlich) is in Micah 7:10. Immersing (Mikveh) appears in Leviticus 11:36 and sprinkling, (Z’reekah) is in Numbers 8:7 and Ezekiel 36:25. Blood is sprinkled on people too, Exodus 24:6 and placed on doorposts Exodus 12:22, and part of the anointing ritual for creating cohanim, Exodus 29:20-21: making “priests” involves killing a bull and putting blood on their right side ears, hands, and big toes and all around the altar, and much more. Is all of this apotropaic – old-fashioned warding off of evil? Or, does something change for us through rituals with physical components that acknowledge our pain and discomforts?
The Red Heifer affords the sages room for imaginative commentary. Nachama Leibowitz, of blessed memory, created a compendium that is now freely
(in English). From this we learn:
R. Joseph Bechor Shor (one of the Tosaphists) adopts a completely rational approach: The rites pertaining to the Red Heifer were designed to discourage association with the dead, prompted by the bereaved’s love for the departed, and excessive grief. Alternatively, that people should not make a practice of consulting the dead or familiar spirits, the text pronounced the defilement of the dead person as more contaminating that all other defilements, making it the prime source of uncleanliness, defiling both man and vessels and defiling as well through overhanging (ohel).
Also on account of human respect, that people should not come to using human skin for coverings and human bones for articles of use just as we use the skin of animals; it is disrespectful of humanity. Our Sages made a similar point (Hullin 122a): “Why has the skin of a corpse been declared unclean? That a person should not use his parent’s skin for coverings.”
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zachai tells his followers:
By your life, neither does the dead defile nor the water purify, but the Holy One Blessed Be said: It is a statute I have laid down, a decree that I have decreed and you are not authorized to violate my decree. (
Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 19:5
Well, today there are no red heifers, if there ever were. So how do we discern the meaning if we cannot try on the rite and experience it ourselves? Let’s try an experiment:
Imagine being in the position where you must touch a corpse, let’s go gentler than a murder or accident scene – perhaps to a medical school dissection lab – as part of the education.
Now imagine needing a way to move past the discomfort of it. Imagine being in synagogue during the Torah reading of this portion, known as
Ask to have the first
– to go up to witness these verses about the para aduma up at the Torah. This is a way of acknowledging the power of the experience of contact with death, with a corpse and of showing reverence for life and a ritual to help you be “touched by Torah”.
This may help cleanse your state of being – perhaps along with all who have experienced corpse contact this year – perhaps the rabbi might consider inviting all so affected in the past year up to aliyah along with you to bless Torah’s wisdom on this subject, the mystery of life and death, to take in the meaning of their sacred service.
Then let all present rise to honor those who so serve the community and our families – the police, firefighters, healthcare workers, family who found the deceased and called us, clergy, and many more.
We might all say to them: May the merit of your efforts be for a blessing.
What needs more of a pausing and cleansing at the level of our very sense of being, at the level of our living, embodied souls – than contact with death?
The red heifer –
– has so mystified commentators throughout the ages that it is taught that even King Solomon, known for his ability to understand difficult aspects of the Torah, declared himself unable to decipher the original ritual. So it falls to each generation to find a way to experience Torah as a lens for healthy and holy living, to help our practices evolve.
Rabbi Goldie Milgram is co-editor of Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, recently honored at the National Jewish Book Awards. She founded and directs
, dedicated to innovation of programs & resources for meaningful Jewish living. Her newest initiative is a two-year distance-learning program in the principles and methods of Jewish Spiritual Education. For more information
click here to contact Rabbi Milgram