A PUZZLING PARADOX – “Khukat” – Num. 19:1-22:1 – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
This week’s reading starts with what is frequently called the most irrational of Mitzvos, namely the sacrifice of the red heifer. The animal to be sacrificed is described as a full-grown cow, with no defects, never yoked and having a totally red color. Even two black hairs would disqualify her. The men who slaughter her and burn her entire body must be in a condition called “tahor” – pure. The priest must sprinkle the cow’s blood toward the tent of meeting, and he throws cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet into the burning carcass. Now both the priest and the man who burns the cow must bathe and wash their clothes. Why? By performing this sacrifice, they become “tamey” –contaminated. The purpose of this action is to take the cow’s ashes, which must be carried by another man, who is “tahor,” to a point outside the camp where they are immersed in water and become “a purification.” Of course the man who carries the ashes thus becomes “tamey” until nightfall.
Who needs this purification? Anyone who had contact with a dead body. So we learn the laws of contamination in a rather paradoxical way. Sacrificing the red heifer purifies those who are contaminated, and contaminates those who are pure. Illogical to say the least. But this is a “khok,” an ordinance. The very name of this week’s reading is “Khukat.” Ordinances don’t need logic. There’s no apparent reason for it, it’s just our policy. In a comment in the book of Genesis, Rashi states that both our own evil urge and the other nations will challenge such puzzling laws. They will point to other ordinances that lack logic, from the prohibition of combining wool and linen, to the prohibition of eating pigs. Traditionally, we learn that we show our loyalty to G-d by obeying His ordinances even though they defy our understanding.
Now wait a minute. Is there more to the Red Heifer story? Maybe.
Josephus points out that this ritual was carried out only nine times in all Jewish history. The first time was by Moses, and it was on the occasion of Miriam’s death.
After all, besides being the sister of Moses and Aaron, Miriam was a special lady in her own right. It was she who helped Pharaoh’s daughter adopt the infant Moses. She led the other women in song at the Red Sea. And it was her noble soul that merited a miraculous well that kept the people alive all through the years in the desert. We learn that “Miriam’s Well” accompanied them on their way. And this week, we will read that “the people camped at Kadaish, and Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the people.”
Presumably the people all joined in burying their beloved Miriam. And so they became “tamey.” But they got purified by the sacrifice of the red heifer. This illogical mitzvah took their grief and their thirst and turned it around. More than the well, they missed Miriam.
In the tractate Taanis, the Talmud counts three blessings that came to the public because of individuals. They are Miriam’s Well, Aaron’s Clouds of Glory that guided the people on their way, and Moses’ Manna that sustained them. As each of these individuals died, the blessing that they brought was retained through those who survived.
Observing Mitzvos we might not consider logical could be one way to honor the great people in our lives whose service sustains us. Though they may leave us, we can keep their blessing through our own action. As we remember them, let us bring their blessing to those who follow us.