Alexander I. Poltorak

Paradox of the Red Heifer

Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid… The cow shall then be burned in his presence… The one who burns it shall wash his clothes in water and cleanse his body in water, and he shall be unclean until evening… Anyone touching the corpse of a human soul shall become unclean for seven days. On the third and seventh days, he shall cleanse himself with it, so that he can become clean. But if he does not sprinkle himself with it on the third and seventh days, he shall not become clean… They shall take for that unclean person from the ashes of the burnt purification offering, and it shall be placed in a vessel [filled] with spring water. A ritually clean person shall take the hyssop and dip it into the water and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, and on the people who were in it, and on anyone who touched the bone, the slain person, the corpse, or the grave. The ritually clean person shall sprinkle on the unclean person on the third day and on the seventh day, and he shall cleanse him on the seventh day, and he shall wash his clothes and bathe in water, and he shall become ritually clean in the evening… This shall be for them as a perpetual statute, and the one who sprinkles the sprinkling waters shall wash his clothes, and one who touches the sprinkling waters shall be unclean until evening. Whatever the unclean one touches shall become unclean, and anyone touching him shall be unclean until evening.

Numbers 19:1-22

In the post, Tumah and Taharah, we discussed the following ideas:

  • Taharah (purity) and Tumah (impurity) are strictly spiritual concepts;
  • Spiritual concepts are points in an abstract “conceptual” space, which is called in mathematics a “fiber bundle”;
  • Sefer Yetzira defines the fifth “moral” dimension (in addition to four dimensions of spacetime);
  • Taharah (purity) and Tumah (impurity) are mirror reflections of each other, as if tumah was an “antiparticle” of taharah;
  • Life is viewed as the soul’s existence within the body where soul and body are “entangled,” and, conversely, the soul’s separation or disentanglement from the body causes cessation of life;
  • Tumah is usually associated with the cessation or diminution of life.

The wisest of all man, King Salomon, could not fathom the paradox of Parah Adumah (the Red Heifer): Why does the person who administers the ritual of purification become tomeh (spiritually impure) himself? It is such a quintessential paradox that, if I wanted to say a Purim Torah (tongue-in-cheek), I’d say that the word “paradox” may have originated from the Hebrew words para (heifer) adom (red) of para adumah (red heifer) fame. But today is not Purim, so I have to reluctantly admit that the word “paradox” comes from Greek para (contrary to) and doxa (opinion).

Why does a person who touches a dead body become spiritually impure (tomeh) in the first place? As I wrote in my post, Tumah and Taharah, in the view of the Kabbalah, it is the soul that makes a body alive. But how does the soul do that? Let’s see if we can find a hint in the Torah.

And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul.

Genesis 2:7

The process of giving life to the first man is described here as the process of breathing: “And He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life.” We find similar expressions in the Prophets. For example, in the story of Elisha reviving a dead boy, we find a description of mouth-to-mouth resuscitation:

And he went up and lay on the child, and placed his mouth on his mouth and his eyes on his eyes and his palms on his palms…

II Kings 4:34

Similarly, we find in the Writings:

…and the breath of the Almighty keeps me alive.

Job 33:4

What is so special about breathing? It’s the rhythm of it. I once met an old colleague from Cornell Medical College and inquired about his aging father who was in his 90s. He told me that his father still retained his sense of humor. During a recent visit by a nurse who had asked if his father had any trouble breathing, the old man quipped, “No, I think I get it: in-out, in-out, in-out…” This indeed captures the essence of breathing – the rhythm of the in-out or the inhale-exhale cycle. This rhythm parallels the rhythmical “vibrations” of the soul, referred to in Kabbalah and Chasidut (philosophy of Chasidism) as ratzo vashov or running and returning (see the Rebbe Rashab’s Hemshech Samech Vav). This expression comes from the Ma’ase Merkava, the mystical description of the angelic order by the prophet Ezekiel:

And the Chayot (angels, lit. leaving beings) were running and returning…

Ezekiel 1:14

It is these rhythmic “movements” of a soul – which runs up to God in its desire to merge with the Divine and returns back to the body where it finds its purpose, only to repeat this never-ending cycle – that induce the rhythmic cycle of breathing. Breathing, in turn, induces the rhythmical contractions of the heart, etc., etc.

If you hang several small pendulum clocks on a wall along with one large clock, after a while, all of the clocks’ pendulums will start swinging in phase – the small clocks will get synchronized to the large clock on the wall. Similarly, all rhythms of the human body – be they the rhythm of breathing, the rhythm of the heartbeat, circadian rhythms, or rhythms of individual cells – although different in frequency and phase, are all “synchronized” and “orchestrated” by the ratzo vashov rhythm of the soul, which acts as a conductor of a great orchestra playing the symphony of life.

As I discussed in my essay, On the Nature of Time and the Age of the Universe, this rhythm of ratzo vashov is the source of time itself.

When the soul leaves the body after 120 years, time stops and the music stops…

The word tumah is etymologically related to the word timtum, which means “stopped up” or becoming impermeable. The Talmud says, for example, that eating non-kosher food (even when permissible according to the ritual law, halachah, such as for a pregnant woman having a craving) causes timtum halev – stopping up of the heart – i.e., becoming spiritually insensitive, impermeable to the divine light. A person is supposed to be a vessel or a conduit for the Divine light. Being in a state of tumah, i.e., being stopped up, means that the person is no longer a vessel or a conduit for the Divine light.

I was driving in my car the other day listening, as usual, to classical music station WQXR on 105.9 FM. I enjoyed the music until they started playing Wagner, at which point I switched to a Jazz station WBGO on 88.3 FM. Right now I am sitting in my study writing this blog and it is quiet here. Although the room is filled with radio waves broadcasting all kinds of music, I don’t hear anything, because I don’t have a receiver. I need a receiver to tune into a particular frequency, with which a particular station broadcasts, and my room will fill with music. So too with the spiritual music, or the spiritual light, as it were. We need a receiver to perceive it, and we need to tune into a specific frequency. Sometimes a physical object or action helps us tune in. On Pesach, for example, we eat matzah, which tunes us into the frequency of Pesach light that shines on us at that time. On Sukkot, we sit in a sukkah-booths and shake lulav and etrog, which helps tune into the frequency of Sukkot. Every day, however, it is the soul that is the receiver of spiritual light and, when in the body, it tunes the body to the particular frequency to make it a channel, a conduit for spiritual light (in Kaballah, “light” is a metaphor for Divine emanation). When the soul leaves the body, the latter gets out of sync with the frequency of the former and the body can no longer receive (and transmit further) the divine light. This is tumah.

The soul acts in the body as its master clock – as its pacemaker, as it were. Without the soul, the body’s clock eventually stops. Anyone who touches a dead body or is under the same roof as a corps gets spiritually “entangled” with it. (I use the word “entangled” in quotation marks because this word has a specific meaning in quantum mechanics, which I apply here to spiritual concepts taking a poetic license to expand the narrow quantum-mechanical meaning of this word to a much broader notion.) The clock of the met – the corps – has stopped and, when “entangled” with the clock of a live person, it causes that person’s clock to slow down. He gets out of sync with the Divine frequency of ratzo vashov. This is the effect of tumat met – the impurity of death. It causes the state of tumah – a reduced flow of divine light and divine consciousness.

How are we to get rid of this impurity (tumah)? The Torah tells us to take ashes of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, mix it with water and sprinkle it on the person who is tomeh – who is in the state of impurity of death, tumah. But how does this help get rid of the tumah-impurity? When a person’s heart stops beating, when a person loses the rhythm of life, we jolt him with a powerful electric shock to restart his heart. Parah Adumah is the spiritual defibrillator.

As we said before, the rhythm of life supplied to the body by its soul is the rhythm of ratzo vashov – “running and returning.” The same ratzo vashov is used to restart the clock of a person who has come in contact with death and whose clock slowed down and got out of sync with his soul.

Parah adumah is a red heifer. Everything about it bespeaks gevurah – strict judgment. “Take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.”

  1. The word parah (heifer) is etymologically related to the word pur – force. The word gevurah also means force. Thus parah-heifer – signifies gevurah-force (or judgment).
  2. The color red also represents judgment, i.e., gevurah.
  3. “Perfectly red” represent severe unmitigated judgment.
  4. “Unblemished” means perfect, which is also a manifestation of judgment – we judge it if it is perfect enough to qualify as a parah adumah.
  5. “Upon which no yoke was laid” – a further limitation connoting judgment-gevurah.

Reading this verse on Shabbos, I thought that these five qualifications of parah adumah must represent five states of gevurah. I was happy to find support for this proposition later in the Kitvey Arizal, where Rabbi Chaim Vital states:

Know that the five final forms of the letters signify the five states of gevurah. Their combined numerical value is 280, and when we add 5 for the five letters themselves, we have [285], the numerical value of] “heifer.”

We see that Parah Adumah is an embodiment of gevurah in its full measure. Burning it to ashes further contributes to the aspect of gevurah, because fire represents gevurah as well. So ashes of parah adumah represent gevura2– judgment squared. Then we mix the ashes of parah adumah with maim chayim – the living waters obtained from a live stream. Water, of course, represents chesed (kindness). Maim chayim represents chesed2 – kindness squared. Alternatively, we can say that using hyssop, which is green in color, which also signifies chesed, makes chesed2. Mixing these two diametrically opposite ingredients – ashes of parah adumah representing gevurah and maim chayim representing chesed – create a contradictory construct that represents the paradox of ratzo vashov (see my essay On the Nature of Time and the Age of the Universe). Sprinkling this mixture on a person who is in a state of tumah acts as spiritual defibrillation – it puts his body in touch with the supernal rhythm of ratzo vashov, which restarts the proper rhythm of the person’s body synchronizing it with the rhythm of the soul. This, it seems to me, is the secret of parah adumah.

The aspect of this paradox that was particularly challenging for King Salomon, was the fact that the person administering the procedure would acquire tumah-impurity himself as a result. But perhaps this can be understood from the point of view of quantum mechanics. The person who interacts with the tomeh – the person in the state of tumah – gets “entangled” with the tomeh, which slows his internal clock (although to a significantly lesser degree), getting it out of sync with his soul. Thus, he also requires purification by immersion in waters of mikvah.

Originally published on on  Jun 24, 2013.

About the Author
Dr. Alexander Poltorak is Chairman and CEO of General Patent Corporation. He is also an Adjunct Professor of Physics at The City College of New York. In the past, he served as Assistant Professor of Physics at Touro College, Assistant Professor of Biomathematics at Cornell University Medical College, and Adjunct Professor of Law at the Globe Institute for Technology. He holds a Ph.D. in theoretical physics.
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