Light from the Sidra

Chukat ('Decree'). 27 June 2014. 30 Sivan 5774.

Torah: Numbers 19:1-22:1. Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24.

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Red and dead

Red Heifers are extremely rare creatures. According to Jewish tradition, during the two thousand years from the issue of the decree in Numbers 19 until the destruction of the Second Temple in the first century AD, only nine heifers that met the biblical criteria were ever found. Finding a red heifer is like finding a needle in a proverbial hay stack. However, at the beginning of this week it was reported that one had been discovered in the USA.

For a cow to be a Red Heifer it has to be without blemish, one that was never put to work and completely reddish. Jewish law requires keeping the cow under strict care until it reaches three years old. During this time, leaning on the cow, riding it even once or even putting a piece of cloth on its back disqualifies it from becoming a Red Heifer.

Strict rules also apply to its colour. Two single hairs of a colour other than red automatically disqualify it from becoming a Red Heifer. A Red Heifer candidate that was discovered in 2000 was disqualified after two black hairs were found on it.

Likewise, a cow that meets all other criteria, but is older than four is disqualified. The calf that was discovered a few days ago has a long way to go until it qualifies as a real Red Heifer.

In biblical times, the Red Heifer was completely burned by a priest on the Mount of Olives, where the Dominus Flevit [‘The Lord Wept’] Church is located today. After being sacrificed, the ashes of the heifer were mixed with water, which was then termed the ‘water of remission,’ which purified the people, especially those defiled by touching dead animals. This most serious form of defilement required Jews to undergo a ceremonial cleansing with the ashes of a Red Heifer before they could enter the Temple again. Without the Red Heifer, therefore, worship on the Temple Mount is not possible, which is why Jews who want to rebuild the temple are so excited by the discovery. Some Orthodox Jews believe that Moses prepared the first Red Heifer and Messiah will prepare the last one, so the Temple Institute is making preparations to transport the calf to Israel and to train priests that will perform this sacred and rare sacrificial ceremony. But it will be at least two and a half years before it can be known whether or not the new born calf truly is the Red Heifer.

The ‘statute’ or ‘decree’ of the Red Heifer is introduced immediately after thousands of Israelites died as a result of the plague that followed Korah’s rebellion. Many of the people must have come in contact with dead bodies and as a consequence became defiled.

What could be done to cleanse the people of their ritual impurity? Leviticus 17:11 states that only blood can purge away uncleanness, whether moral or ritual. A red heifer without defect and which had never been under a yoke had to be slaughtered and its blood sprinkled seven times (signifying completeness) in front of the tabernacle. We should never underestimate the need for purity with regard to fellowship with God.

This presents a problem within Judaism. For 2,000 years the Jewish people have been without a temple, sacrifices and priesthood. Therefore, Jews remain without the means of purification. Biblical scholar and archaeologist Ernest Martin argues that the Red Heifer provides a clue to the site of the crucifixion of Jesus. In the Second Temple period a bridge spanned the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount to the Mount of Olives. On Yom Kippur, the scapegoat was led across the viaduct to the Mount of Olives on its way to the wilderness. It was at the eastern end of the bridge that the Red Heifer was burned (‘outside the camp’) and from where its ashes were brought back to the temple for the purpose of purification.

Martin’s theory is that Jesus was crucified on the Mount of Olives because, according to the New Testament Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus suffered ‘outside the camp’ (Jerusalem) in order to purify his people. In other words Jesus became, as it were, the Red Heifer and was killed in more or less the same place where the heifer was reduced to ashes. Because Jesus was also the scapegoat who carried the guilt of sin ‘as far as the east is from the west,’ it would have been most appropriate for him to have been taken across the very bridge across which the scapegoat was led.

At first sight it looks as though the Haftarah is teaching that God does not require sacrifice. Why then do pious Jews pray for a Third Temple in which sacrifices will be once again offered? Why are they excited about the prospect of a Red Heifer? Humility, contriteness of heart and obedience to God are far more important than sacrificial offerings but until the time envisaged by Isaiah, when we are all pure in heart, soul and mind, we will always be in need of purification by sacrificial blood.

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