Parashat Chukat - The Conundrum of the Red Heifer

Parashat Chukat Herschel

Saturday 9th July 2022 10th Tamuz 5782

Numbers 19:1-22:1; Judges 11:1-33; John 3: 10-21



We are in the last year of Israel’s forty year sojourn in the wilderness. Our parasha this Shabbat is called Chukat:


Num 19:1-6

2. This is THE DECREE of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded, saying - Speak to the Children of Israel, and they shall take to you a completely red cow, which is without blemish, and upon which a yoke has not come:

3. You shall give it to Elazar the Kohen; he shall take it to the outside of the camp and someone shall slaughter it in his presence:

4. Elazar the Kohen shall take some of its blood with his forefinger, and sprinkle some of its blood toward the Tent of Meeting seven times:

5. Someone shall burn the cow before his eyes -- its hide, and its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall he burn:

6. The Kohen shall take cedarwood, hyssop, and crimson thread, and he shall throw them into the burning of the cow:

9. A pure (ritually clean) man shall gather the ash of the cow and place it outside the camp in a pure place. For the assembly of Israel it shall remain as a safekeeping, for water of sprinkling; it is for purification:


Our G-d is the God of life and therefore, anything associated with death is contrary to His nature and is abhorrent to Him. And therefore, the most contaminating of all influences is a corpse – a dead body. When an Israelite for whatever reason encountered a corpse, they were rendered tamei – ritually unclean, defiled. They had to leave the camp for 7 days. On the 3rd and 7th day of their separation from the camp, they had to undergo a cleansing ritual which is the subject of our parasha.


12. He shall purify himself with it on the third day and on the seventh day become pure; but if he will not purify himself on the third day, then on the seventh day he will not become pure:

13. Whoever touches the dead body of a human being who will have died and will not have purified himself -- if he shall have contaminated the Tabernacle of Hashem, that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water of sprinkling has not been thrown upon him, he shall remain contaminated; his contamination is still upon him:


In the Chumash, this ‘water of sprinkling’ is called ‘the water of separation’‘me’ei nidah’. Nidah is the same word used for a woman who is menstruating. This mixture consisted of:

  • The ashes of a purely red heifer, mixed with

  • Cedar wood

  • Scarlet thread and hyssop

This mixture was then mixed with running water in a pottery vessel.


Now, the interesting aspect of the preparation of this cleansing mixture, was that the priests who were involved in its preparation were themselves rendered defiled or ritually unclean and had to leave the camp for a day.

Lev 19 :7-8

7 The Kohen shall immerse his clothing and immerse himself in water, and afterwards he may enter the camp; and the Kohen shall remain contaminated until evening:

8. The one who burns it shall immerse his clothing and immerse himself in water; and he shall remain contaminated until evening:


This is the mystery of the ordinance of the Parah Adumah – the Red heifer. This mixture when applied according to the prescribed methodology, can restore someone who has been contaminated by death. Yet, simultaneously, everyone who was involved in its preparation of this cleansing mixture, is themselves rendered unclean. It is a conundrum, a chukah, which defies logic and human understanding. You just obey because God says obey!


G-d’s provision for a person who was contaminated by death, was to cleanse them by means of this mixture made by the ashes of a red heifer.


The Torah introduces the Mitzvah of the red heifer as THE Chukah of the entire Torah. But, why does the Torah refer to it as though it is the primary statute of the Torah?


The sages answer that in a spiritual sense, life represents our connection with HaShem who is the G-d of life!


Therefore Torah, which binds us to HaShem, is called the TREE OF LIFE - Eitz Chayim. Departing from the ways of Torah is therefore tantamount to touching death itself. It was the same for the priests in the context of the waters of purification. They were privileged to serve nearest the divine presence which was behind the veil in the Tabernacle.


And therefore, for a priest to be willing to become unclean and leave the Tabernacle precincts even for a single day, was a great sacrifice.

The ordinance of the parah aduma (red heifer) enjoins the Kohen to be willing to sacrifice nearness to G-d for the sake of another person who had become ritually defiled.


The chazal (sages) derive from this that when we see another person who has strayed from the way of Torah, we must be prepared to make great sacrifices, both physically and spiritually, so as to woo them back into the sheep fold. Yeshua taught something very similar.


Luke 15:4-7

"Which man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and loses one of them, will not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the lost one until he finds it? When he has found it, he puts it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbours and says, ‘Rejoice with me, for I've found my sheep that was lost!' I tell you, in the same way there will be more joy in heaven over one repenting sinner than over the ninety-nine righteous people who have no need of repentance."


May we have this same attitude!