Light from the Sidra

Chukat ('Decree of')

Torah: Numbers 19:1-22:1.Haftarah: Judges 11:1-33

Red in truth and law

Isaac Newton, one of the greatest minds of all time, famously (and with seemingly uncharacteristic modesty) stated that if he had seen further than others, it was by standing on the shoulders of giants. Newton didn’t coin the phrase; he was using an analogy attributed to Bernard of Chartres who lived five hundred years earlier, in the twelfth century.

Bernard was comparing 12th century scholars to the ancient scholars of Greece and Rome. Although they were dwarfs in comparison with the great scholars of antiquity, they could see further than them because they were standing on their gigantic shoulders. But even Bernard was not original. The likelihood is that his metaphor was inspired by a series of stained glass windows in the south transept of Chartres Cathedral (

The tall windows under the Rose Window portray the four major prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel) as gigantic figures, with the four New Covenant evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) as ordinary-size people sitting on their shoulders. The evangelists, though smaller, see more than the prophets since they saw the Messiah about whom the prophets spoke.

The late Lubavitch Chabad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, described Number 19 as ‘the most esoteric chapter in Torah’. The Midrash on Bamidbar 19:3 says that King Solomon, ‘the wisest of men,’ was unable to understand the laws of the Red Heifer: ‘All these [the Torah's commandments] I have fully comprehended, but as regards the section dealing with the Red Heifer, I have investigated and inquired and examined: “I said: I will get wisdom: but it was far from me”’ (The Midrash Rabbah, 19:3, Volume 3, p.754, The Soncino Press).

The Midrash teaches that the Red Heifer is one of the four laws the ‘Evil Inclination’ regards as irrational because although the ashes of the Red Heifer removed the greatest of impurities, those who prepared it were rendered ritually impure. Also, although the Red Heifer had to be ‘perfect, without blemish,’ it also had to be completely red (according to the rabbis, as few as two hairs of a different colour disqualified it), a colour which has connotations of sin and deficiency in the Torah. Thirdly, the Red Heifer had to be slaughtered outside Jerusalem (in contrast with all the other sacrifices, which had to be slaughtered in the courtyard of the temple), while the Red Heifer had to be slaughtered within the sight of the Holy Temple and its blood sprinkled ‘toward the Holy of Holies’. In Second temple times the Red Heifer was slaughtered and burned to the east of Jerusalem on the Mount of Olives at the far end of a bridge that spanned the Kidron Valley.

The deceased Chabad Rebbe commented: ‘Thus the laws of the Red Heifer are introduced by the Torah with the words “This is the chok of the Torah,” as if to say: this is the Torah's ultimate chok, the mitzvah that most vividly demonstrates to supra-rationality of its divine commandments.’

‘The “Ultimate chok” of the Torah’? ‘Supra-rationality’? If that is the case, the Red Heifer merits serious investigation. If, as the Talmud says, ‘All the prophets prophesied only for the days of the Messiah’ (The Soncino Talmud, Berachot 34b), perhaps the conundrum of the Red Heifer is solved in Messiah. Perhaps in him we see why the Red Heifer is the ultimate Torah decree.

The death of Messiah for the sins of the world, as recorded in the New Testament is ridiculed by both Jews and Gentiles as irrational but the similarities between the death of Jesus and that of the Red Heifer are striking. According to the New Testament writer Johannan, The blood of Messiah Yeshua removes all sin (1 John 1:8); yet those involved in his death, both the Sanhedrin who conspired against him and the Romans who tortured him to death, became morally impure. But even while he was being put the death he prayed for the forgiveness, the purification, of his judicial murderers.

Shimon Kefer who spent three years as a talmid (disciple) of Yeshua, declared him to be ‘a lamb without spot’ (1 Peter 1:19) and yet, Shaul (Paul) states, ‘For our sake [God made Yeshua] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Yeshua the Messiah was slaughtered outside the holy city of Jerusalem but within the sight of the Holy Temple. And there is evidence in the Gospel of Mattityahu that he was put to death on the Mount of Olives close to where the Red Heifer was put to death: ‘And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split . . . When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’ (Gospel of Matthew 27:51-54).

The only place from where the earthquake and the things that took place, including the rending of the veil of the temple, was the Mount of Olives. According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, ‘before these doors [of Herod’s temple] there was a veil of equal largeness with the doors. It was a Babylonian curtain, embroidered with blue, and fine linen, and scarlet, and purple, and of a contexture that was truly wonderful’ (The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus, Kindle Edition, Location 24401-24402).

Standing on the shoulders not only of the prophets but also the Gospel writers, we are in a position to see the Red Heifer as a graphic picture of the Messiah and the way in which his death cleanses his people from their the worst of impurities, making them fit to stand before God.

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