Holy Cow! – Parsha Chukat

By Naomi Olstein

Red Cow

While parsha Chukat deals with many topics, it begins with parah adumah, the red heifer. It is the most enigmatic mitzvah in all of Torah. More than a mitzvah, it is chukat haTorah – Law of the Torah. If a person comes in contact with a human corpse, she or he must go for ritual cleansing. The “defiled” individual shall then be sprinkled with a concoction made of the mixture of fresh water, mayim chayim, literally “living waters;” and the ashes of a slaughtered and burned “red” cow that had absolutely no blemishes nor ever bore a yoke. Now, here’s the paradox: the mixture of these “waters of lustration” cleansed the person who had been rendered ritually impure by contact with a corpse. However, the individuals who burned the cow, made contact with its ashes, and sprinkled the mixture on the “defiled” person would be rendered impure in the process. In other words, the act of making one person ritually pure makes the purveyor of purity impure.

At the core of all of this is the notion of tahor and tamai, “pure and impure.” These are states of being, reflective, I believe, of one’s bodily relationship to “life” and “not-life.” The things that make one tamai, “impure” are contact with various entities and conditions. These include dead animals, dead humans, and a number of different types of creeping things; skin diseases involving mortification of the flesh, tzaraat, contact with similar growths of inanimate objects, as well as menstruation and emissions of semen, and childbirth. None of these states of being are permanent, yet they all require “purification.” With the exception of childbirth, each of these “impurifying” things seems to have to do with “not-life,” a condition that would disqualify the individual from participation in the life of the holy. For ancient Israel, nothing was more central than being eligible to be part of the holy community. To do that, one had to be tahor, ritually pure, that is, “of life.”

Perhaps to our modern sensibilities, these notions of ritual purity and impurity are alien, even alienating. It is equally possible that our discomfort with such bodily states reflects a disconnection that we would do well to restore. Often the Torah touches on fundamental realities of the human condition from which we have distanced ourselves. Let’s face it: today death is a taboo subject. In fact, virtually all bodily processes are. Yet our ancestors didn’t have any problems with addressing the normal fluctuations of life. On the contrary, they saw the guf, body and life force, neshama, nefesh, and ruach, for what they are – profound mysteries that bind us to G-d. Our state of being was the essential component in our covenantal relationship with G-d. Just as the animal brought for sacrifice had to be without blemish, so for us to partake in the life of the covenantal community of holiness, we must be in a state of ritual purity.

Our connection with G-d is a corporal one. We are all in this together. Everyone has to be at their best, physically and spiritually. We have to be fully alive. Are we any different today? We might not like to speak of bodily emissions, we might not relate to all behaviors – netilat yadayim, washing of hands before a meal, mikveh, ritual bath, tahara, cleansing of the body before burial – that accompany the traditions surrounding ritual purity. However, we nonetheless live our lives with great attentiveness to our physical and emotional and spiritual states of being. We exercise. We diet. We meditate. We know what it’s like to feel “off” and we do whatever we can to get back “on.” We just don’t necessarily do it within the context of sacred community. Maybe we could learn something from Torah when it come to this.

The Rabbis identified this chok, “law,” from which the name of this week’s portion, Chukat derives, as one for which a reasonable understanding is humanly incomprehensible. It really might not be as elusive as we think. Perhaps there is great wisdom and insight in this seemingly bizarre practice. While we might not be on the lookout for red cows in our local pastures, which would prove a waste of time since the destruction of the Temple made this ritual obsolete, I think the underlying dynamics of these “waters of lustration” still speak to us today.

As far as parah adumah, how is it that the ashes of a dead animal make a corpse-defiled individual ritually pure and, in the process, how the one doing the purifying becomes impure. What is more important, what is essential to this ritual, is that the persons doing the “purifying” – the one who slaughters the cow, the one who burns the carcass, the one who gathers the ashes, the one who mixes the ashes, the one who sprinkled the ashes – are not priests but just members of the community. Indeed, Torah is clear, it is a community-centered ritual. As it says in Number 19:9, “The waters of lustration shall be kept by and for the community of Israel.” Simply put, this process of transitioning from “not-life” back to “life” is something we do to and for each other. Even today — all the time: as it states in Numbers 19:10, Chok Olam, Law for all time.

Every time members of our synagogue or extended Oahu Jewish family go into mourning, the community comes out to take on the mourner’s state of not-life. We sit with them. We pray with them. We embrace them and hold their hands. And we gently usher them back into life. We bring food to them. We affirm their recitation of Kaddish by saying “Amen.” Some of us stand with them. Some recite the Kaddish with them. And in so doing we assume – at least in part – their state of not-life. We adjust our daily lives. We accompany them to the cemetery. We surrender our evening activities. We take on their pain. We allow death to enter our state of being. We immerse ourselves in the spiritual waters of life and death. We transform in order to help others transform. We become community.

Which brings us back to the cow. The red cow. It has become a character of intense interest and mystery within the Jewish tradition. Some say it was incredibly rare. Some say it wasn’t really red, just brown and without any imperfections (Mishna Parah 2.5). Some say it was a symbol of the original sin of the Jewish people, The Golden Calf (as noted in B’midbar Rabbah 19:8). I just think it’s so obvious that…. it was a cow, a maternal life-giving creature whose own life force was surrendered so that the community could restore itself from the impurity of not-life. While I am personally grateful that we have moved on from animal slaughter as a means to ritually find meaning in our lives, I am not willing to lose the meaning our ancestors implicitly understood within the context of these now alien rituals. The great student of religion, Huston Smith called them “forgotten truths.” Perhaps we would do well to try and remember them. They touch at the core of our quest for the sanctification of life.

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