PARASHAT CHUKAT


Numbers 19:1-22:1; Judges 11:1-33; John 19:38-42

The Purity Paradox

In Numbers 19, the Torah gives the laws for preparing the ashes of the red heifer. The red heifer is an unusual sacrifice which was slaughtered and burned outside of the Tabernacle. Its ashes were then collected and mixed with water. The water was sprinkled in a purification ceremony which removed ritual uncleanness engendered by contact with death.

Paradoxically, the preparation of the red heifer renders each person involved unclean. The priest who oversees the slaughter and the burning becomes unclean and incurs first degree impurity. The man who ignites the fire becomes unclean. The man who gathers the ashes together is rendered unclean. Moreover, the one who sprinkles the water of cleansing to remove the impurity of corpse contamination incurs first degree impurity. The sages speak of the paradox as an inexplicable decree of the Almighty:

Who decreed this? Was it not … God? We have learned that all the people engaged in preparing the water of the ashes of the red heifer, from beginning to end, defile garments, while the heifer itself makes garments ritually clean. The Holy One, blessed is He, says, “I have laid down a statute; I have issued a decree! You cannot transgress My decree.” (Numbers Rabbah 19:1)

The same paradox is also present in the rituals of Yom Kippur. After completing the purification ceremony of Yom Kippur, the high priest needed to immerse again. Similarly, the man who released the goat into the wilderness needed to immerse before returning to the camp, and the priest who oversaw the burning of the carcasses of the sin offerings needed to immerse himself before returning to the camp.

The purification paradox hints toward Messiah who became unclean in order to cleanse. To save others from death He died. Yeshua took on mortal uncleanness by virtue of His human birth. He took on human uncleanness by virtue of His healing ministry in our midst. He took on the uncleanness, the iniquity, the transgression, and sin of Israel. He took on the contaminating impurity of death itself, in order to cleanse us from sin and death. He did not remain long in a state of ritual impurity. Human uncleanness and iniquity did no