Red Heifer Symbolic Levels Of Interpretation

Red Heifer in Field

Symbolic Levels Of Interpretation

The Desire to Understand

In the beginning of our study we learned that although the precept of the red heifer is a chok, which automatically indicates that we will never be able to fathom its true meaning and significance, still, we are permitted and even obligated to comprehend to the best of our abilities. The act of study itself is of primary importance. By searching for levels of meaning we demonstrate our desire to understand the word of G-d, and its application for our lives today. By trying to make it part of our lives, we show the Almighty how much we strive to fulfill His will, and how important His commandments our to us. King David said, "The Torah of Your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver" (Psalms 119:72). By studying, the Holy One sees how much we cherish His word. This is what we can do for G-d; our effort to draw closer to Him.

What is Prophecy?

Since we are about to closely analyze the words of the prophet Ezekiel, perhaps we would do well to define the concept of prophecy according to the authentic Jewish tradition. Prophetic revelation is the closest brush with the Divine that a human being can have. In the true prophetic experience, a man becomes the instrument through which G-d exerts His power. This is like becoming a human amplifier for the word of G-d; he becomes a channel for the Divine message.

G-d only grants the gift of prophecy for the sake of His people, and it is an experience which requires tremendous effort and preparation. One must attain the highest level of sanctification; it can only be attained in the holy Land of Israel.

A Million Prophets!

Although true prophecy is virtually unobtainable today under the present circumstances, there are still levels of Divine guidance and inspiration which G-d bestows upon those who are deserving. However, during the era of the First Temple, prophecy was a commonplace thing. An amazing tradition relates that so many people in Israel experienced prophecy, they numbered over a million - a different prophet was sent every day. In the future, all their names will be revealed.

Prophecies for All Time... Here and Now

If this is so, the immediate question arises: Why is that only very few of these prophecies are mentioned in the Torah? If so many people were given the privilege of tasting a glimpse of the Divine reality, and they shared that experience with the people of their own generation, why is the Canon of the Torah only 24 sacred books? Why were these other prophecies not recorded for all time, so that we would be able to study them?

The answer is compelling in its simplicity - and its urgency: Even though many, many people were granted the gift of prophecy, the Torah only records those who had a message for all generations. Thus the prophecies which have come down to us are timeless - or rather, for all time. Their message is not only as relevant today as it was then; the main thrust of that message is for now, for us. They were spoken to us, in our own time, and when we study them it is as if they were spoken today. Through the words of the prophets, G-d has given us the tools we need today, here and now, to seek Him in our own lives... and to prepare for the days ahead.

"I Shall Sprinkle Pure Waters Upon You... "

This book began with the words of the prophet Ezekiel, to whom G-d told, "Then I shall sprinkle pure waters upon you... and I will take away your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh." The imagery of the Holy One Himself sprinkling His people with pure waters has an obvious association with the sprinkling of the heifer's water of sanctification. Yet as one of the holy sages asks, to what water is this verse actually referring? It can't be speaking of the waters mixed with the heifer's ashes - for although that solution is the key to cleansing, purifying all it touches - the mixture itself is impure, which is why it contaminates those who were already pure! This is an aspect of the mystery that we have spoken of throughout these pages.

Knowledge of G-d

In truth, the "pure waters" which G-d will sprinkle upon us at that time, is Divine knowledge itself. In the future, "G-d and His Name will be One," and that explosion of Divine consciousness will enable us all to be on the level of understanding that Moshe reached.

The prophet tells us that at that time, the "earth will be filled with the knowledge of G-d like the oceans that cover the sea." But when we think a little deeper about this verse, we can see that the prophet chose his words carefully, and G-d provided him with the vision which would make for a perfect analogy to teach us this point.

The verse states that knowledge of G-d will be compared to the waters of the sea. Why? Because the ocean is seemingly endless, stretching out as far as the eye can see. But even so, how much are we really seeing? Only the surface! Our vision does not reveal what lies beneath the depths, for miles and miles. Although the knowledge of G-d will be so widespread that all men will be on a level of higher awareness and true recognition of the Creator, even so, we will never truly penetrate to complete understanding of G-d; that is impossible. "No man sees my face and lives" (Ex. 33:20). Yet G-d has assured Israel that in the future, all will understand the mystery of the red heifer.

May He fill us with the sincere desire to serve Him, and open our hearts to Divine knowledge, so that we may have the proper intentions for fulfilling His will.

The Concept of Repentance

The Greatest Gift

On a symbolic level, one of the great secrets intimated by the process of the red heifer is the concept of repentance. Repentance is the greatest gift which G-d gave to man - so holy, so G-dlike, so completely above all logic or comprehension. The sages teach that the concept of repentance is one of seven things which G-d "thought of" even before He created the world. Thus He created repentance before He created man; this means that the ability for man to repent existed well before sin... it even existed before the beginning of time. Repentance was one of the pillars of creation; before He created man, the Holy One already knew that "the impulse of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen. 7:21), and that it would be impossible for even the best of men not to sin and stumble. "There is no righteous man on earth who does only good, and does not sin" (Ecc. 7:20). G-d knows that this is an integral part of human nature, and it cannot be avoided. Angels are perfect, people make mistakes... yet it is the service of man which G-d desires. Without mistakes, there can be no growth.

Thus, in the words of the rabbis, "G-d created the cure even before the illness," and the concept of repentance was prepared in advance of man and built into the very fabric of creation, so that when one transgresses the will of his Creator, a path is left open for him to return.

Understanding the Nature of Sin

How do we understand sin? Judaism defines sin as a spiritual sickness, but it can be more precisely defined as a kind of temporary insanity. Indeed, if a person did not loose track momentarily of the priorities of life; if he did not suddenly and inadvertently suffer a brief disconnection with his Divine purpose, and a short "snap" of his bind with the Eternal Creator, then he would never sin! For when one sins, it is only because he forgets the spark of holiness within him for an instant; his perspective blurs. He simply forgets about G-d! For if he felt himself to be part of the whole, and connected with the Divine source of his soul from which he was hewn, he would never come to sin. As the sages advised, "Let a man remember three things and he will not come to sin: A seeing eye is above him, and an attentive ear, and all his deeds are written in a book."

In this light the rabbis further explained that "a person does not sin unless he was first seized by an insane impulse."

Both pure logic and experience tell us that this is certainly true. For let us consider what really happens when a human being sins. He cuts himself off totally from G-d, and even worse, he rejects the spark of life, the holiness, the Divine image in which he was created! How is this possible? How can anyone transgress the will of the Almighty? After all, every movement a man makes, every thought that goes through his head and every word he speaks, all come about through the power which G-d gives him. But G-d bestows this power in order for man to live a holy life, to seek Him out and serve him... "In all of your ways, know Him" (Proverbs 3:6).

Rebelling Against the Creator

Yet the sinner takes that very same power which G-d, in His infinite love, gave man for ultimate good - and he uses it against Him. He uses the very life energy within him to rebel against the Creator who breathed it into him in the first place, by directing that energy into an area which G-d does not desire! Can there be a greater, a more brazen audacity then this? Like an insult of the worst kind, it is as if the entire universe is moving in one direction, fulfilling the will of the Creator and thus sanctifying Him, but this one has separated himself and is moving in the opposite direction. It is as if he is handed a cup of wine by a benevolent benefactor, and in sheer ingratitude he throws it in the latter's face. By right, we would expect G-d's punishment against this offender to be swift and exacting. Yet G-d withstands this insult and waits patiently for the sinner to repent.

"... And you shall return to HaShem your G-d, and hearken to His voice." (Deut. 4:30) "Return, wayward sons, says HaShem. (Jer. 3:14) "... return, you children of men" (Psalms 90:3).

When any person repents, his sins are forgiven. The doors of repentance are open for every human being, Jew and Gentile alike. And repentance is effective for any sin, no matter how serious. Just as one can repent for an individual sin, he can repent for an entire lifestyle as well. The sages taught that repentance is so powerful, nothing can stand in its way. As the verse states, "If you return to HaShem your G-d and listen to His voice... G-d will then accept your repentance and have compassion on you" (Deut. 30:2 - 3).

By obeying G-d's commandments, we purify ourselves and attach ourselves to Him. Living according to the Creator's will brings man closer to Him. Sin has the opposite effect: it diminishes one's spiritual stature and makes it more difficult to reach perfection. Even worse, sin actually serves to separate a person from G-d, as it is written, "Only your sins have separated you from your G-d" (Isaiah 59:2).

Thus repentance precedes sin; "G-d created the cure before the illness."

Which comes first, a mother or her child? The intrinsic necessity of a mother to precede her child is one way of understanding that cryptic parable, "let the mother come and clean up her child's filth:" Let the concept of repentance come and erase the sin.

How Does One Prepare for Repentance?

But no religious experience can come about without proper preparation. True religious experience is an imitation of the Divine; an infusion of Godly light. If a man does not prepare his vessel properly, it cannot contain this great light. Just as a prophet cannot receive Divine inspiration unless he follows the steps which lead to that exalted level, so too, the main preparation for repentance is the attribute of submission and humility. "The offerings of G-d are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O G-d, you will not despise (Psalms 51:19)."

"Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to HaShem."(Proverbs 16:5) How ironic it is that no individual is as far from G-d, as he who feels that he has already attained perfection, and has no need to search his deeds. By the same token, another type of person truly seeks to better himself, but on account of his own humility he is beset by feelings of inadequacy. Because he so much wants to improve, he feels that he will never be good enough, and consequently he feels rejected by G-d and unworthy. This is the man who is truly moving closer to G-d! And the further away he feels... the closer he really is. G-d desires that a person should recognize his own limitations and hold his fellows in higher esteem than himself. When one nullifies himself to the whole, he can then merit to repent in sincerity and purify himself.

This concept is a key to understanding one of the allegorical levels of that greatest of all mysteries - why the heifer's ashes "cleanse the impure and render the clean impure:"

Judging Others Favorably

In order to open one's heart to the way of true repentance, even though he may be aware of his own good qualities, he should not think highly of himself. Let him view himself as impure, being far worse spiritually than his own neighbor - let him "make the pure (himself) impure" - and then he may "purify the impure;" he can believe in his own heart that his friends are good and righteous when compared to him. When a man gives others the benefit of the doubt, and feels enough compassion to allow for others to make mistakes and make amends... when a man knows that his neighbor has sinned, and yet he still feels that by contrast to himself, in comparison to his own lowliness, the other one is pure... then he has merited one level of the heifer's ashes: true humility, upon which spirit the Divine Presence can rest.

When the true penitent can negate himself in this manner, he will merit holiness and purity. Thus Scripture states, "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? Not one." (Job 14:4) This verse itself teaches us that one should view himself as impure, but his friend as pure. For "not one" in Hebrew can be read as a play on words; lo echad, if not for "the oneness!" What other way could bring a clean thing out of an unclean, if not for the oneness of Israel coming together! Through that union, each one is able to see his fellow's good points and his own shortcomings. The "gathering together" of Israel within the consciousness of each individual, is itself her purification.

The Greatest Secret of All

There is a well-known question: If we have received an explanation that the purification by the heifer's ashes is related to the golden calf episode, and "let the mother come and clean her child's filth," then why is the ordinance of the red heifer still considered a chok? Surely the element of mystery has been abated; it is simply a matter of rectifying the sin of the golden calf!

Yes, even if it is granted that the secret mechanism which powers the cleansing of these ashes is the power of repentance... but this itself is above the realm of comprehension! For even the greatest wisdom and understanding cannot fathom or explain the power of repentance, and how it works... only the Holy One Himself, in his infinite mercy, decreed that it should be so. Repentance is the most G-dly secret of all!

Sensitivity to Others

Perhaps this is one way of understanding how the cleansing ashes serve to atone for the havoc wrought by the sin of the calf. That transgression was so severe that it left its impression on all generations to come, down through the ages. And the rectification is through studying the Torah, G-d's word, serving Him, and most of all, by bestowing kindness upon each other. But what is the single greatest act of kindness one can perform? To feel the next one's suffering and to participate in the sorrow of the entire nation. For when one sensitizes himself to others, he will be prevented from sinning - for he will then understand that when he transgresses, he causes others to suffer, even the entire world! For we are all connected. True unity is achieved when each of us can feel another's pain. The sages thus taught that "whoever has mercy for G-d's creations will himself receive mercy from heaven" because the same attribute that man deals with others is the one which G-d metes out to him.

The great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem Tov (the "Master of the Good Name," c. 1700 - 1760; founder of the Hasidic movement) taught that whatever a man does to his fellow, he actually does to himself. If he gives charity or bestows kindness, he is giving himself charity - for G-d will act towards him in the same measure. But if he endeavors to cheat the next one, or steal from him, or bears him ill will... these will be visited against him from on high, and it is none other than his own doing.

When a man really understands this concept of unity, and he is able look beyond his own feelings and needs, to those of the entire whole, he will refrain from sinning merely out of the desire to have mercy on them. His main concern will be to not to cause another suffering on account of his sin. In turn, he will receive the ultimate heavenly mercy: his own sins will be atoned for, and he will merit the resting of the Divine Presence. When the people of Israel are truly united as one with peace reigning between them, G-d will rest among them. This is the secret of the verse, "And He was king in Yeshurun, when the heads of the people and the tribes of Israel were gathered together" (Deut. 33:5).

In the Merit of Avraham

This is also a deeper level of meaning contained in the words of the verse, "And he that gathers the ashes of the heifer shall wash his clothes." The "clothing," representing the physicality will be washed by he who gathers. The real cleansing, the highest level of purification, is through the "gathering" itself - the gathering together of the individual into the totality of the congregation of Israel. This is true humility; the humility of Avraham, the first Jew. The ashes of the heifer reflect the level of humility achieved by our forefather Avraham when he declared before G-d "I am but dust and ashes" (Gen. 18:24). Indeed, the sages record that G-d told Abraham: "In the merit of these words you have spoken - 'I am but dust and ashes' - I will give your children a commandment they will perform through ashes, and by your life, they will receive atonement through it." (Similarly, on the verse which states "Who can count the dust of Yaakov?" (Numbers 23:10), the sages reflected: "who can count the merits of the Divine commandments they fulfill with dust?")

Then the verse continues and instructs "And lay them outside the camp in a clean place:" This process of each one "gathering" himself into the congregation will even facilitate the return of those who are "outside the camp" - those who have not yet repented. For whoever is connected to one who is pure, will ultimately be influenced for the better, and be purified himself.

But why is it that "Satan and the nations of the world tease Israel" about this specific commandment, asking for its explanation - to which we answer, "it is a decree which G-d wrought." G-d says, "I have ordained it, and you have no permission to question it." What difference does it make to the other nations of the world, whether or not they could understand this? Why are they so curious; why is this the particular point of contention which they have latched on to...

The Secret of Israel's Faith

The nations hound Israel on account of the red heifer, precisely because her adherence to this precept is a revelation of Israel's truly inimitable spiritual status. Israel's obedience to commandments such as the red heifer reflects her level of faith, a level that is impossible for others to grasp or emulate. It irks the nations of the world to perceive this unflinching faith; Israel is the only nation that can follow G-d unquestionably.

"We Will Do!" - Afterwards, "We Will Listen"

The purpose of the Divine commandments is to plant the faith of G-d within Israel's heart. At the Revelation of Mount Sinai, the people of Israel accepted the yoke of G-d's commandments upon themselves even before they understood what this compliance would entail, and before they received any explanations. They committed themselves to G-d on faith alone, stating "All which HaShem has spoken, we will do and we will listen" (Ex. 24:7) - meaning, we will perform all of these commandments even if we do not understand why. The cornerstone of Jewish belief is that man is obligated to G-d, not that God is obligated to man. The main thing is action; first and foremost, "we will do."

The highest level of faith is when one is capable of believing something above the grasp of his own frail comprehension. This is the aspect of faith which the psalmist referred to as "your faithfulness at night;" (Psalm 92) "night" represents pure faith against a backdrop of darkness; the unknown. This level of simple, perfect faith, without sophistication or philosophy is the degree which is the most beloved and desired in the Creator's eyes. This was Avraham's faith, as the verse testifies: "And he believed in HaShem and He counted it to him for charity." (Gen. 15:6).

Giving G-d "Charity"

How are these words to be understood? G-d reckoned the fact that Avraham believed in Him as charity?! The explanation is exactly along the lines we have been discussing. Avraham personified Israel's faith in G-d, especially as illustrated by their adherence to ordinances such as the red heifer. If a person only believes in the things which make sense to him, all he is really doing, is returning to G-d that which He already deposited with him - for man's intellect and reason is not his own, but merely a gift given him by G-d. Thus a man willing to believe something that he can understand by using his G-d-given reason, has not crowned some special achievement! But when he trusts in G-d even though he cannot understand.. this trust is like "charity" which he gives back to his Creator, because it is an extra measure which is outside the confines of his own reason... for once, he is doing something original for G-d.

The sages taught that it is the merit of this powerful faith which will bring about Israel's final redemption. The idolaters know of Israel's great power and cannot abide by the fact that she has such faith. They chide and taunt her: "What is the explanation of this precept?" For they wish to dissuade Israel from her perfect faith in the Holy One, a faith which encompasses not only commandments of reason (like honoring one's parents, or the prohibition against killing, which anyone with intelligence can accept), but also commandments of chok like the red heifer. The heathens cannot countenance the performance of commandments without knowing the reason. Thus G-d declares to all of these: "It is a decree which I have issued!" Tell them that you perform this commandment because of your perfect faith in Me.

This is also another level of meaning within the words, "This is the ordinance of the Torah, which HaShem has decreed saying" - the extra word "saying" indicates, "say to them!" Tell all the scoffers that as far as Israel is concerned, the entire Torah is a chok, and we perform it all only because G-d has commanded it... and no explanation is necessary.

The Secret of Israel's Purity

This characteristic is the secret of Israel's purity, as well. For it is faith that cleanses the mind from the impurity of sin. It should therefore be of little wonder that one of the prerequisites of preparation for the holiday pilgrimage to the Holy Temple is to be cleansed with the "inexplicable" ashes of the red heifer - so that we might merit that perfect faith to perform all of G-d's commandments for no other reason other than the fact that He has decreed it thus. Indeed, we likewise endeavor in all of our pursuits, both physical and spiritual, to aspire to the level of not questioning G-d's plans, but simply believing with perfect faith that "He is the rock, His work is perfect; for all His ways are justice (Deut. 32:4)." There is no hope but trust in G-d. And Israel, in the merit of the faith which surpasses understanding and is above the laws of nature, also receives salvation beyond the limitations of the natural world - as the verse states, "Your love is great above the heavens" (Psalms 108:5) - meaning, G-d's attribute of kindness is not subject to the laws of nature, but comes from a realm far above them.

A Closer Look at the Other Biblical Ingredients

Now these nations ask: what is this unusual quality of the red heifer, which is so great that it has the power to cleanse the impure? Yesterday, this man was "outside the camp" - abhorred, shunned and avoided. But today all that is forgotten; the same man is altogether pleasant and precious in God's eyes. In order to understand this "transformation" we must examine the other ingredients by which this mysterious purification is rendered: the cedar tree, hyssop and scarlet wool.

How does it come about that a man sins? Only because he has momentarily forgotten G-d, and allowed his own heart to become haughty and high - like the cedar. Now that he wishes to return before G-d, the sages teach: "he raised himself like the cedar; let him lower himself like the hyssop, the lowest of all trees, and like the worm (from which the scarlet dye is produced) - for the attributes of submission and humility are very dear in the eyes of the Holy One." Thus the Midrash states that "the hyssop is compared to a human being: it appears to be inconsequential, yet in reality its power is very great before HaShem."

G-d does not shun the lowly, those that remain modest - "the offeringsof G-d are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O G-d, You will not despise." (Psalms 51:18). Such a person's repentance is accepted; he is exonerated by G-d's strict justice, and even merits to be a vehicle for the Divine Presence to rest upon. G-d commanded us to use the hyssop and the scarlet worm, so that we might contemplate them... truly insignificant creations. Why did He not command the use of lofty, grand specimens?

The true and complete rectification for haughtiness, that despicable character trait which is the root and cause of most sins, is humility. Haughtiness is considered so serious a flaw that it is even likened to idolatry. Thus haughtiness is an offshoot of that primary, reverberating sin of old: the golden calf. Therefore the purification for this attribute, this aspect of that idolatrous image present and lurking within each individual, must be brought about by humility and modesty, in order to undo the damage of pride. A humble spirit can be the vessel to fill man's heart with the proper fear of G-d.

But what is real humility? When we understand our complete dependence on the Holy One. Without G-d, man has nothing; he is nothing.

"Have them bring you a red heifer... " The heifer is called after Moshe, for G-d Himself testifies that he was the humblest man ever who ever lived: "And the man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any man on the face of the earth" (Numbers 12:3) The humility of Moshe will aid the penitent, his holiness and righteousness will illuminate and manifest itself to all those who truly desire to emulate him - it is called by his name for all time, and his power will shine through to all who seek to emulate his quality.