Shabbat Parah: How did the red cow make people whole?

Shabbat Parah: How did the red cow make people whole?

United Synagogue of Hoboken, Conservative

According to Jewish tradition, the wisest person who ever lived was King Solomon. According to the Midrash, he could understand the details of every commandment in the Torah — except one.  He just threw up his hands when he came to one particular commandment in the Torah, and said, “I thought I was wise, but this one is beyond me.” (Ecclesiastes 7:23, quoted in Bamidbar Rabbah 19)

The commandment that, according to the Midrash, was so perplexing to him is the commandment of the Red Heifer, the Parah Adumah. (March 31, 2019 is designated on the Jewish calendar as Shabbat Parah, one of the four special shabbatot leading up to Passover, so this passage is read alongside the regular weekly torah portion of Shmini.) This commandment remains perplexing even though it has not been performed for 2000 years since the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. 

What is perplexing about this commandment?  According to the Torah, when people come in contact with the dead, they are rendered ritually impure.  The way for them to become pure again is for the priests to slaughter a red cow, mix its ashes with various other substances, and then sprinkle the ashes on the person who came in contact with the dead, who is thereby rendered pure again.  We read this passage a few weeks before Passover each year, presumably because in ancient times, at this time of year, many people would be getting ready to go on their pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Passover holiday.  Presumably, most of these people had come in contact with a dead body over the course of the last year; even being in the same room as a dead body, or entering a cemetery, would make you ritually impure.  This passage would be read as a reminder that these pilgrims would be undergoing the ritual of the Red Heifer before entering the Temple precincts.

By contemporary standards, this ritual is unusual enough — but I have not yet said what the commentators say really bothered King Solomon.  They say:  the truly perplexing part of this ritual is that all the priests who are involved in preparing these purifying ashes — from the person who slaughtered the cow, to the one who burned it, to the one who collected its ashes, to the one who sprinkled its ashes — all become impure through their involvement with the ashes (though their level of impurity is lower than that of the person who came in contact with the dead).  This is apparently the question that kept King Solomon awake at night. How can the same action, and the very same ashes, render some people pure and some impure?

One traditional Jewish understanding of King Solomon’s unresolved question is that the Red Heifer is simply inexplicable. Not all the commandments in the Torah are undertaken for rational reasons; some are undertaken simply as acts of love and obedience.

But some see another hidden question in King Solomon’s question.  The ritual of the Red Heifer is a ritual to enable people to experience purity and wholeness and completeness again after they have had contact with death.  Truly, how some are able to recover from loss and to emerge whole again is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in our world.  Perhaps this is what King Solomon’s cry of confusion was really about. 

While we could not state exactly how some people manage, over time, to overcome grief,  this process may operate in a similar manner to the most mysterious detail in the account of the Red Heifer. For example, picture what happens in a shiva house, when visitors come to comfort someone who has lost a family member within the last several days. Hopefully, through their presence, they help the bereaved person to feel marginally better.  At the same time, however, comforting people who are in mourning can be intensely challenging.  Those who engage in this sacred task sometimes walk away from the encounter feeling at least a little deflated, as if we have accepted upon ourselves a measure of the other person’s grief or anxiety.  The very same action has nearly opposite effects on the two different people. One person, who is suffering, becomes somewhat more whole and complete from the encounter, while the other person becomes just a little bit broken down.

The Talmud suggests that a similar process happens when people visit someone who is ill: “Everyone who visits a sick person takes away one-sixtieth part of the illness.” (Nedarim 39b) The process of helping the ill person to feel marginally better often involves the visitor enduring at least a little bit of discomfort, as if an exchange is taking place.  (The Talmud goes on to note that it won’t work to simply get 60 people to visit the ill person, one after the other.  Rather, each visitor has a marginal effect on the ill person, taking away 1/60 of the amount of illness that remains.)

This Talmudic source may describe the process of comfort in an overly formulaic and mathematical way. There is much that remains just as mysterious for us about how people emerge whole after loss as it was for King Solomon.  But may we remember that diminishing our own joy slightly is an appropriate trade-off when we have the potential to bring someone else out of a time of difficulty. Our Torah reading suggests that doing so is an act of supreme holiness.

read more: