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Light from the Sidra

Chukat (‘Decree’). 16th July 2016. 10th Tammuz 5776.

Torah: 19:1–22:1. Haftarah: Judges 11:1–33

The Colour Red

When asked about his astonishing contribution to the sum of scientific knowledge, Isaac Newton famously stated that if he had seen further than others, he had done so only by standing ‘on the shoulders of giants’. Sir Isaac’s uncharacteristically modest reply (he was the Sheldon Cooper of the 17th and 18th centuries) might possibly have been inspired from the imagery of a series of stained glass windows in Chartres Cathedral. In the south transept of the cathedral, under a magnificent Rose Window, are four tall windows each portraying a gigantic image of one of the major Hebrew prophets: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. Sitting on the shoulders of each prophets is a smaller figure, each depicting one of the Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The four Evangelists, the windows tell us, understood the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus through the lens of the ancient Jewish seers. Though smaller than the prophets, the Evangelists saw further than the prophets only because they stood on their shoulders and lived in the days of the fulfilment of their predictions.

The late Lubavitch Chabad Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, described Bamidbar 19 as ‘the most esoteric chapter in Torah’. And, says the Midrash, 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”’ (Midrash Rabbah, 19:3).

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). In the Torah, say the rabbis, the colour red has connotations of sin and deficiency. Thirdly, in contrast with all the other sacrifices, which had to be killed in the courtyard of the temple, the Red Heifer was slaughtered outside Jerusalem but within sight of the Holy Temple and with its blood was sprinkled ‘toward the Holy of Holies’. According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in Second Temple times the Red Heifer was slaughtered and burned on the Mount of Olives at the end of a magnificent bridge that spanned the Kidron Valley.

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

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

The death of Messiah for the sins of the world, as recorded in the New Covenant books, is ridiculed by both Jews and Gentiles as irrational but I think it is better to see Messiah’s work as supra-rational because the similarities between the death of Messiah and that of the Red Heifer are striking. According to the New Testament writer Yochanan, the blood of Jesus the Messiah removes all sin (1 Yochanan 1:8); yet those involved in his putting him to death, both the Sanhedrin who conspired against him and the Romans who actually killed him, became morally impure. But even while Jesus was being nailed to a tree he prayed for the forgiveness, the purification, of his judicial murderers.

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

Jesus 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 Mattityahu 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), could be seen was the Mount of Olives. According to 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.’

To make sense of the law of the Red Heifer we need to take our stand on the shoulders not only of the prophets but also of the Gospel writers. As we do so we will see that the Red Heifer graphically foreshadowed the Messiah who, by offering himself to God, took on himself Israel’s impurity in order to purify his people.


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