Chukkat: Blood and Ash

June 24, 2011 at 2:11 pm | Posted in Chukkat | 1 Comment

The Torah portion that Jews begin reading this Saturday afternoon is Chukkat, “Decree”.  The portion opens with God’s decree about using the ashes of a perfect red cow (or red heifer) after being exposed to death.  For centuries, rabbis have used this decree as the prime example of a law given by God that humans cannot understand, but must merely accept.

Nevertheless, some parts of the decree of the red cow make sense in terms of human psychology.

Speak to the children of Israel, and they shall take to you a completely blood-red cow that has no blemish in her, that never had a yoke put upon her.  (Numbers/ Bemidbar 19:2)

The Torah continues with instructions for slaughtering the cow outside the camp but within view of the sanctuary entrance, and then burning it down to ashes, along with cedar, hyssop, and red yarn.  This ash must be preserved in a safe place outside the camp.  When someone needs spiritual decontamination after being in the presence of a corpse, some of the ash is mixed with “living water” and sprinkled on the affected person.  Only after being sprinkled can that person engage in religious life again.

Anyone who touches a corpse, anyone with a human soul who is destined to die, who does not clear himself of guilt, will contaminate the dwelling-place of God.  And that soul will be cut off from Israel, because if the water of exclusion was not sprinkled upon him, he will be contaminated; his contamination will always be with him.  (Numbers 19:13)

nefesh = soul (the soul that animates a body); throat, appetite

tamei = contaminated, ritually unclean or impure, unacceptable for public worship

The Torah adds that this rule applies not only to touching a corpse, but also to touching a human bone or a grave, or merely entering a tent where someone has just died.

A few days ago, I was “touched” by a moving story my friend told about her stillborn grandson.  Then I walked into a Torah study class, without any ritual in between.  Usually I approach any Torah text as an exciting challenge, and I look forward to wrestling meaning out of it.  This time, the Torah seemed dull and lifeless to me.  It took a while for my mind to recover so I could engage with the Torah.

Witnessing a death, or touching a corpse, is far more “contaminating” than hearing a story about it.  Actual contact with death requires a far greater shift in consciousness to return to the activities of life.  The Torah classifies entering “the dwelling-place of God” as an activity of life.

Over and over again, the Torah insists that the god of the Israelites can only be worshiped when one is tahor (uncontaminated, ritually pure; the opposite of tamei). That means we cannot approach the divine when we are still in touch with  death.  The contrast with ancient Egyptian religion’s focus on death is probably intentional.

(I’ve read that some Christians who meditate on an image of Jesus on the cross find God by focusing first on death, and then on its miraculous transformation.  That would be a third kind of relationship between religion and death.  I’m often amazed by the different deeply-held human beliefs about both God and death.)

Let’s return to the Torah portion.  How would the unique ritual of the ashes of the red cow help someone to make the shift in consciousness from death to life?

On one level, it is significant that the cow is completely red— and the word used for red here is adumah, related to adam, “human”, adamah, “earth”, and dam, “blood”.  The other ingredients the priest throws into the fire when the cow is burned are also reminders of blood:  red cedar-wood, hyssop branches (used in other rituals for sprinkling with blood), and red yarn.  All these things are part of the ash.  When it’s time to sprinkle someone, a little of  the ash is mixed with “living water”, water from a source such as a spring, rather than a well.

The next book of the Torah,  Deuteronomy/ Devarim, says “the blood is the nefesh”, the soul which makes a body alive.  To me, the ritual of the red cow seems to move from life (represented by blood) to death (represented by ashes).  Then death is mixed back into life (represented by living water), and the mixture is sprinkled on a living person who was contaminated by contact with death.

Traditional commentary sees the red cow as representing a human being’s animal nature, which inevitably dies.  But, the rabbis say, humans are a mixture of animal and divine natures, so we must not let an awareness of physical death make us believe we are no more than animals.

The 19th-century rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that sacrificing the red cow means renouncing our selfish egocentrism, so we can serve God with a pure soul.  Brooding on death gives someone a divided heart; we cannot embrace our moral freedom and sense of eternity when we focus too much on our animal life, which ends in death.  Being sprinkled with a mixture of ashes and living water reminds the person touched by death that life still runs through all human experience, in this world and the world to come.

We don’t have ashes from a perfectly red cow anymore (although there is a literal-minded orthodox group in Israel that’s working on getting some).   So what can we do now to return to life and God after being touched by death?  I suspect that in our highly individualistic culture, we each need to find our own way to return.  For me, a return might begin with a very long walk, with all my senses open to receive, gradually, the wonder of creation.  For you, it might begin another way.  If the contact with death is the passing of someone you love, or news of your own final illness, it might take a long time to finish shifting your consciousness.

But I believe that somehow, we all need to find a way to return—so that we can truly live for as long as we are alive.


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  1. […] Later the book of Numbers describes how a perfect red cow is slaughtered, then burned with other red objects:  cedar wood, hyssop, and shani tola-at. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on anyone who has touched a corpse, in order to make them ritually pure again.9 (See my post Chukkat: Blood and Ash.) […]

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