This week we read parsha Chukat (Hukath or Chukkas) which is usually translated as “laws” or “decrees”, but I prefer translating Chok as a “law between God and man (a.k.a. Holiness code). For more information on that matter please read an older column I wrote here. Chukat consists of Numbers 19:1–22:1. You can find a brief summary here.
Chukat begins telling us about the pariah adumah “red heifer” and what the priests must do to it ritually, and how they will end up using it for ritual purifications. Jacob Milgrom calls the ashes used for this chok “Ritual Detergent”. This ritual detergent comprised of red heifer ash, cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool (note that everything has a redness associated with it.)
And what does this para adumah concoction wash off?
Answer: Ritual impurity if one should come in contact in any way with a human corpse.
The Torah is adamant about us not being in contact with dead humans whenever possible. If we find ourselves in the vicinity of one or touch one then we would be considered tameh “spiritually unclean – death associated”, and we must make ourselves tahor “spiritually clean – life associated”.
What is very clear is that we are not to worship the dead. Coming from a culture where death was the religion and worshipped by so many, God seems to be waging war on the other religions and their practices throughout the Torah – and this is one example. God wants us to be focused on life, and not on death or the afterlife (despite some misinformed Jews, Judaism has always affirmed an afterlife… we just don’t know much about it other than it exists. So we focus on this world, and this life.) To this day, Kohanim (Priests, descendants of Aaron) are prohibited from coming in contact with a corpse or even visiting a grave. Our Kohanim, priests, are to be focused on life – as opposed to Egyptian priests who focused on death.
There is nothing immoral about being near or touching a dead human body, but their is an unholiness factor that must be dealt with. God gives us the para adumah so that we can cleanse ourselves and feels as though we have washed the contamination of death off ourselves. Anyone who has had to handle a dead animal knows how creepy and unsettling it is. How much more so with a human being.
Obviously the more you do something the more tolerant and desensitized you become. But God does not want us desensitized to death. He also doesn’t want us to feel prolonged trauma from having been in contact with a corpse. So this ritual is set up to help us spiritually and psychologically.
An odd effect of this “ritual detergent” is that it cleanses the contaminated, but contaminates the clean. Like a spiritual bleach, if used appropriately it can get the stain out of a stained garment if used appropriately. But if used inappropriately that same bleach will itself stain a garment. Obviously, the para adumah ashes are on a much higher spiritual level than that of a bleach detergent, but you get the idea.
This ritual served a beautiful function of giving people the highly sought after spiritual and psychological cleansing needed after dealing with a human corpse. I personally wish we still had something analogous to this available for people today. People often have a very difficult time washing themselves of the unexplained uneasiness they feel if they see or touch a corpse. Police officers, paramedics, firefighter, soldiers, and doctors especially could benefit from this.
But since this cannot happen today (may the moshiach come speedily in our days) perhaps we can be there for these and other people who deal with death on a regular basis. Perhaps though words or deeds we can help them feel a spiritual cleansing so they can continue to do tremendous good in this world.