January 28, 2020 |

The Riddle of the Red Heifer

I recently had the great honor and fortune to offer a benediction at George Washington University’s commencement ceremony. It was also a great opportunity to teach Torah to a very large audience.

There were 25,000 people present. And on top of that, since Michelle Obama was scheduled to speak, it was broadcast on ABC.

The University Marshall asked me over the phone if I wanted to wear a cap and gown or traditional rabbinic garb. I said I would wear my bekkeshe—a long, blue Hassidic garment which I wear on Shabbat and other special occasions. (Even though I am not Chassidic I consider myself a neo-Chasid.)

So there I was in the VIP tent waiting to march on stage with the professors and the Trustees of the University. Would you believe that I was the only one there wearing a bekkeshe? But the strange thing was that people kept coming over and complimenting me on my gown. They said that they had never seen such a beautiful gown. A few people asked what University it represented. And one person said, “Wait, I know. It must be the gown for Yeshiva University!”

I tell you this story about my garment since our parsha today also tells the story of a garment. It is the garment of Aaron the Kohein Gadol.

Hashem says to Moshe, “Your brother Aaron is about to die. Take Aaron and Elazar, his son, up to Hor Ha-Har. Vehafshet et Ahraon et begadav ve-hilbashtem et Elazar beno, and remove the garments of Aaron and place them on Elazar his son. And so Moshe did this, vayiru kol haedah, and the entire congregation saw that Aaron died. And all of Israel mourned for Aaron for thirty days.”

Imagine for a moment the drama of this moment. Moshe Rabbeinu is being commanded to take his older brother and remove his priestly garments. We all know how hard it is for us to take away a job from someone who is too old to do it. And here Moshe is removing Aaron from his post. And still, he manages to undress Aaron knowing that when he completes the task that Aaron will die.

So why is it so important for Moshe do this task? Couldn’t he have let Aaron keep his clothes on and just give a new set of priestly garments to Elazar?

So one reason he had to do this was to support Elazar. In order to give Elazar communal support people needed to see Aaron pass the leadership mantle onto Elazar. They needed a smooth succession and so it was necessary for the whole congregation to see that both Aaron and Moshe believed that Elazar was now a worthy Kohein Gadol. Thus it was important to do this ceremony in a manner in which everyone could acknowledge that Elazar was the new Kohein Gadol.

But there is another reason why Moshe needed to undress Aaron. This reason has nothing to do with Elazar, and it has nothing to do with Aaron. It has to do with the people and their relationship with Aaron.

The people needed to understand that Aaron died without his priestly garments in order to realize his humanity. Aaron was the epitome of spirituality. He was the one who had stood with his fire pan in the midst of the plague and stopped the people from dying. Aaron was holy beyond belief. If the people did not know that Aaron’s priestly garments were transferred to Elazar then they would never recognize his humanity. They would insist that such a holy man could never leave them.

And in fact, according to Rashi this is exactly what happened.

Rashi says that when the people saw Moshe and Elazar coming down the mountain without Aaron , they said, “Where is Aaron?” Moshe responded, “He has died.” They said, “Is it possible that the Angel of Death could rule over such a holy man?” So Moshe begged for mercy from God, and the ministering angels showed the people a vision of Aaron lying dead on his bed.

Only after seeing a vision of his dead body could they believe that Aaron had really died.

In history we have seen many similar examples of people unable to accept that their beloved spiritual leader has died. Their connection to the leader was so strong and intimate that they refuse to believe he has died—no matter how illogical and irrational such a belief may be.

This past week contained the date Gimmel Tamuz, which is yahrtzeit of the 7th Lubavitcher Rebber, Menachem Mendel Schneerson. What happened after his death reflects this very idea.

Many of his followers—not the majority, but certainly a significant amount—who in other facets of their life were logical and reasoned, could not believe that this holy man who promised his followers that the messiah was coming was really dead. To this day many of his followers continue to chant with him in mind,” Yechi Adoneinu, May our rebbe live a long life.”

This is of course an idolatrous idea which we must speak out against, but that doesn’t stop the believers. I recently read a book called “The Rebbe: The Life and Afterlife of Menachem Mendel Schneerson,” which is a critical biography of the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe. This important and controversial book recounts that in the synagogue adjacent to Lubavitch headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, there was a cornerstone that said, “This cornerstone was laid by the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory.” But then some followers came along and scratched out the words “of blessed memory.”

Despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, they could not believe that the rebbe was really dead.

Written in stone on the rebbe’s tombstone is the phrase, that the rebbe is “the Mashiach of Hashem.”

This shows us just how difficult it is for people to let go of a spiritual belief or connection. We see it around great spiritual leaders like the Rebbe and (lehavdil) we even see it around pop stars like Elvis Presley.

Letting go of a strong and nourishing connection is just too hard for some.

But let go we must. Remember that the mourning period for Aaron was only 30 days. That teaches us that we must let go and move on.

This is as true for a death of a loved one as it is for a controversy or struggle that we have in our lives. We need to learn how to let go and move on. That is why Aaron was undressed in front of everyone; that is why the people saw him lying dead; and that is why they only mourned for thirty days.

But how can we learn to let go and move on? Especially when our memory seems to overwhelm us, what are we to do?

This week’s portion contains a ritual that teaches us how to move on and let go. It is the mitzvah of parah adumah, the red heifer.

The power of ritual is that it helps us move beyond the logical. The physicality of the action guides us when we are in the dark. The familiarity of the process acts as a light.

This is especially true about the parah adumah. The rabbis say that King Solomon, the wisest of all men, said he understood the reason for all the mitzvoth of the Torah except for the parah adumah.

Simply put the law is that any person who has come into contact with a dead body cannot enter into the Temple unless they are purified by a sprinkling containing the ashes of the red heifer.

The mysterious element here is that whoever is involved in the preparation of the ashes, he too, becomes ritually impure.

So if someone touches a dead body they cannot be purified until they have the ashes of the parah adumah sprinkled on them. And while this purifies them, those who prepare the ashes themselves become impure.

While the exact nature of all the aspects of the ritual will remain a mystery, I believe that a close study of the ritual itself will reveal that the ritual is teaching us how to let go.

The ritual purifies those who have come into contact with the dead. And because they have come in contact with the dead their spirituality is stunted and so they need to let go of it.

Here are just a few examples of how the parah adumah ritual helps a person let go.

1) The parah adumah reminds us that a dead body is ritually impure and after contact with it one cannot enter into the Temple. Symbolically we are being taught that spirituality must focus on the living and the present; and not the dead and the gone

2) One of the mysteries of the parah adumah is that the tamei person becomes purified and the kohen himself becomes tamei (ritually impure). We can understand this as a metaphysical transfer of the ritual impurity associated with death from one person to another. It is as though in order to rid oneself of the ritual impurity it needs to go to another person. Think of the book The Cat in the Hat, where the pink spot keeps being transferred from object to object. This ritual helps the spot get transferred.

3) One of the criteria of this parah adumah is that before it is slaughtered it must be a heifer, asher lo aleah ol, it must never have carried a burden. We can understand this symbolically to mean that in order to progress spiritually we must move on unburdened. In order to move forward spiritually, we must leave our burdens behind us.

Of course, this is not just about moving on after a death. The ritual of the parah adumah gives us insight into how we can move on with our life whenever we are trapped in a controversy or struggle that does not let us move forward. Until we can let go and move on, we will never grow spiritually.

That is the true message of the red heifer, in order to grow closer to Hashem we must be able to move beyond the tragedies, the setbacks, and the fights.

But what are to do today when we no longer have the parah adumah in our lives. The Talmud says that there were only 9 parei adumah in history, and alas, we don’t have one today.

So today without the ritual of the red heifer, we must rely on other spiritual tools in our midst—prayer, Torah study, and acts of kindness.

Prayer allows us to move forward by unburdening ourselves before Hashem. Acts of kindness allow us to interact with others and thereby transfer our energy and turn it into a positive force. And Torah study allows us to focus on the present and the holiness of the activity we are engaging in.

These three sacred activities will free us and allow us to deal with the struggles we face. They will allow us to move beyond the bitterness and the mourning and to embrace Hashem in a productive way that like the parah adumah will guide us through the darkness.

According to the rabbis the parah adumah must be purchased when the heifer is at least three years old.

Recently, in March of 2010 it was announced on an Israeli radio station that that there is a red calf that is alive and well. A group of farmers are raising the calf without a yoke in the hopes that it gets to become three years old, it fully retains its redness, and it does not receive a blemish. They are preparing the calf for the messiah’s arrival.

Until such time comes, we are not left empty handed. The light of Torah, Avodah, and Gemilu Chasadim will be our guide.


Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld

Joined: August 8, 2007

Shmuel is Rabbi of Ohev Sholom -- The National Synagogue, the oldest Orthodox synagogue in Washington, DC. His communal responsibilities include teaching classes, coordinating adult education, creating programs for the elderly,the youth, and the sick, and ministering to the pastoral needs of the...

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