The purification ritual known as Parah Adumah, using the ashes of a red heifer, is considered the Torah’s greatest mystery. No explanation is given, nor is there any inherent logic to this exotic ceremony. Especially bizarre is the fact that contact with the ashes of the Red Heifer “purifies the defiled, and defiles the pure” (metaher temei’im umetamei tehorim), ie. the individual Jew or resident alien (Numbers 19:10) who is tam’ei – ritually impure – is purified in this process, while the kohen who administers the ritual becomes thereby tam’ei himself, albeit of a less intense nature.
I am as confounded by this mystery as anyone, and have no intention here of offering a key to its understanding. Yet there are some questions – rhetorical perhaps – and textual hints that may offer a better window into the nature of Parah Adumah.
I would like to suggest that prior to the introduction of the Red Heifer, the Israelites were not in a state of tum’ah. They were neither tahor (ritually pure) nor tamei (ritually impure). After all, who among them had not previously had contact or been in the presence of a corpse – kohanim included? And if such contact would have rendered them tam’ei then who purified the first kohen so that he, in turn, could purify others?
Can it be – and I am suggesting this is the case – that the Israelites first became susceptible to ritual impurity with the introduction of the first Red Heifer? That prior to the Red Heifer the Israelites were in a state of ritual pre-birth – neither tahor nor tam’ei – very much alive yet not yet finished with their spiritual gestation?
“And they shall take unto you a red (adumah) heifer, perfect (temimah), which has no blemish, upon which no yoke has ever been placed” (Numbers 19:1)
What other creature is red, perfect (as in temimah which also means innocent), and upon which no yoke (indeed no physical, psychological, emotional or spiritual trauma) has been inflicted? Is this not the perfect description of a newborn child – red, pure/innocent, not yet violated by the mundane?
Would it then not make perfect sense that the red heifer becomes a proxy for the nation of Israel, a nation which is being ritually born at this very moment, and thereby undergoing the transformation from pre-tahor/tam’ei to a state of tahor? That only now do all prior contacts with the ritually impure become irrelevant as the Israelites enter en masse (for at least this brief moment) into a state of tahor, or absolute ritual purity?
Otherwise how else to explain verse 9: “And a tahor man shall gather the ashes of the heifer and place it outside the camp in a pure place”? Where would such a pure man be found if everyone, to a man, would have been a priori tam’ei because of prior exposure to the dead?
So what we have here, it seems, is the moment of spiritual birth for the Israelite nation. The physical birth began with the Exodus and continued into Sinai. But the spiritual birth takes place here in Parsha Hukkat with the transference of purity to the entire nation via the proxy of the red heifer. The people find that they are now, for the first time, tahor pure. After this reality sets in, and the remedy for future impurity to come is thereby made available.
(NOTE: Please forgive me for not bringing the psukim in Hebrew. I am traveling right now and my laptop lacks a Hebrew keyboard — jjg)