This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid. [Numbers. 19:2]
So, here’s how it works. Aaron’s son, Elazar, takes the red cow outside the Israelite camp, where it is slaughtered. Then, Elazar takes the blood of the cow and sprinkles it in front of the Tent of the Meeting seven times.
Finally, the cow is burned in fire. Elazar takes a piece of cedar wood, hyssop and crimson wool and throws them into the flames. When the fire dies down, a “ritually clean person” gathers the cow’s ashes, stores them outside the camp. Those ashes will be used with water to sprinkle upon those contaminated by a corpse. And all those who handled the red cow and its ashes must undergo ritual immersion. In a way, it’s what we learned in elementary school: a positive and a positive equal a negative.
As Rufus T. Firefly, aka Groucho Marx, would say, “Why a four-year-old child could understand this report! Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make heads or tails of it.”
The sages say the laws of the red cow marks a test of faith. It’s simply incomprehensible. Even King Solomon, equipped with the ultimate intellect, failed to understand. Over the course of history, the red cow became the butt of jokes by the gentiles, whose punchline ended with “And they say the Jews are smart.”
Let’s take it one step at a time. Why a cow? Why not a chicken or an orangutan? What we do know is that for thousands of years cows have been man’s best friend. Their entire mission is to give and support life. They are known as “all-purpose animals,” able to supply milk, butter, cheese, yogurt and even body heat while alive. After they are slaughtered, they are used for meat, leather and parchment. In more than a few countries, people worship cows.
But Jews don’t worship G-d’s creations. Instead, the cow’s utility extends from life to death. The burning of the red cow is not a conventional sacrifice. According to Maimonides, the cow should be older than the usual one-year reserved for the altar. The animal is not raised, rather acquired in its adult state. The only thing that matters is that the cow is entirely red. The red represents sin and impurity. Two non-red hairs and the Jews keep looking.
Chizkiya Ben Manoach, known as Chizukni, emerged as one of the greatest sages in 13th Century France. He culled wisdom from 20 of his predecessors, including the Talmud, Midrash, Rashi, Ibn Ezra. Except for Rashi, Chirzuni does not attribute his commentary. He said he wanted the student of Torah to encourage an objective understanding that would not depend on the source.
The Chizkuni gives us context regarding the red cow. The commandment, he says, was given after the latest tragedy in Israelite history — the rise and fall of Korach and his elite band of power-hungry brokers. In last week’s Torah portion, G-d had destroyed any trace of Korach and 250 of his top men.
But there were thousands of other fatalities and they needed to be buried. All those who would do this task would be contaminated. This probably included the Levites and Kohanim, or priests, who as relatives were closest to Korach. There had to be a solution to allow them to return to the service of the Tabernacle after the burial.
And here is perhaps the greatest lesson of the red cow. The followers of Korach were evil, but they still required spiritual care. They could not simply be tossed into a giant pit and forgotten. The rites of burial would include purification of the bodies. The ground would have to be prepared for each. The families would have to undergo a period of mourning.
This is where the red cow comes in. It takes two opposites, the burned ashes of the animal along with fresh spring water, and together they result in a balance that benefits the living. Ovadiah Ben Sforno says this balance purifies the sinner, unable to worship G-d, and transforms his state to one of purity.
It is like any medicine: If you’re sick, the medicine heals. If you’re healthy, you become ill. Or like fire: Fire can separate and even transform metal. But put fire to wood and destruction results.
The red cow was a rare find. The Talmud suggests that one such bovine could provide enough purification for dozens or even hundreds of years. King Solomon didn’t understand, and certainly we don’t get it. But the Torah commands it and we obey.
The Or Hachayim, or Chaim Ibn Attar, says the red cow highlights the difference between the Jews and the rest of the world. The other nations adopt ideas and when no longer convenient, drops them. Today, the so-called modern world sees cows as threatening the world, and in Europe hundreds of thousands are being prepared for needless slaughter.
In contrast, the Jewish acceptance of the Torah is eternal — separate from time, place and opinions. We might never find a red cow in our lifetime. But when the time is right, we will know exactly what to do.
Some of the gentiles might laugh at us. But, the Or Hachayim continues, others will find themselves drawn to us completely based on our unremitting faith.