“I’m fine,” I lied to my friend on the phone, but the truth is I’m burned out. I was seriously ill a few weeks ago. Thankfully my symptoms are gone now, but I have yet to recover the spring in my steps. My three-year-old daughter (who recently transitioned from a crib to a bed) woke me up at 3:30 each morning for the pas few — which doesn’t help. I’m nearing the end of one leg of a professional project I’ve been working on for a long time, and I feel like a marathon runner who collapses five feet shy of the finish line. I turn to this week’s Torah portion looking for guidance — for anything to uplift my spirit.
There, I discover a bizarre ritual — that of the red heifer. The portion is called Hukkat (which means law), and it begins with an unusual statute. God commands Moses and Aaron to instruct the people to give the priest a red cow “that is unblemished which has no defect and on which no yoke has been laid” to sacrifice. The heifer’s ashes would purify anyone who had become impure from contact with a corpse.
This rite is so remote from our experience today. What could I possibly take away from this text?
Firstly, this ritual is honest. It admits that loss creates spiritual unease which lingers long after the crisis has passed. The red heifer ritual acknowledges human vulnerability — rather than pretending everything is okay. The ritual also recognizes something must be done to address spiritual malaise. You can’t just wish it away but have to take steps to remove it.
The remedy the Torah proposes to that vulnerability (purification via the heifer’s ashes), however, is very odd. What are we to make of it today when we no longer can (nor would we want to) enact this ritual?
The commentators have given many explanations for this ritual over the centuries, and some — including even the wise King Solomon — have been unable to offer any explanation at all. Instead, they’ve understood this law as one of life’s great mysteries. Yet some modern commentators have noted that by killing an unblemished cow, the ritual asserts that perfection simply doesn’t belong in the world.
None of us are without defects or flaws; all of us carry great burdens in life. The red heifer ritual symbolizes relinquishing the dream of perfection. Only by recognizing our limitations can the process of healing begin. This idea is as true now as it was then — cows or no cows.
Tomorrow, in honor of my birthday, I am going to a day spa for some R&R. I hope this outing will work as well as the ritual of the red heifer!
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.