Red Heifer: Who speaks for her?

Red Heifer: Who speaks for her?

Painting of the red heifer, animal used in biblical ritual for healing from death.Ritual of the red heifer (Numbers 19:1-22). A biblical response to grief. But what does it mean?

Many of us have seen others die. Maybe in a hospital. On a battlefield. Or on the street after a fight or an accident. It’s a big deal.

We might feel awe, grief, shock, horror, anger, or fear. Or numbness. But words can’t really describe it.

It’s a lot to process. A lot to release. So, until we do, Torah says, we are ritually impure (tamei). Because our pain disturbs the energy of the entire community.

So, Torah says, we should take seven days of down time. Then, accept a visit from someone a bit more grounded. Someone who is not also ritually impure. Our visitor will brush us with a special water mixed with ashes. Not any old ashes, but the ashes of a perfect red heifer. A cow who was burned into nothingness by a priest (cohen).

This ritual will release us from the impurity. But it’s not an easy ritual to facilitate. The helper will come away shaken. They will be ritually impure, for the rest of the day.

Rituals work when we feel into their symbolism. But this ritual? We have no idea what the early Israelites felt. So, we don’t know how it worked. We don’t know what it meant.

That’s why some very famous commentators say: the meaning doesn’t matter. Even Moses didn’t know the meaning. So, just do the ritual, because God commanded it. It’ll develop your faith.

This is not a satisfying interpretation.

But here’s a more modern one, based on Annie Dillard’s book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Think about the red heifer. She has never worked. Never had children. Didn’t get to grow old with friends. So, she experienced none of the things that make a life meaningful. Then, one day, some so-called holy people came by. They bought her, slaughtered her, and didn’t even eat her. They just burned her body to ashes. And they didn’t really know why.

This is death as we often experience it. It’s untimely and arbitrary. Sometimes it seems meaningless. When see it, we free fall. We’re alone, without structure. Without justice. So, when ashes from the red heifer touch us, we feel less alone. Our ritual helper joins us in protesting this random universe.

But this interpretation isn’t satisfying, either.

Why would you protest senseless death with a random animal killing? Yes, people act out this way. But isn’t it just as senseless? Why would Moses and the priests be okay with this? Wasn’t there a single priest who protested wasteful animal sacrifice? You would think so.

I think Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, were protestors (Leviticus 9:1-11:47). They may even have been vegans. And why not?  Adam and Eve thought it was natural to eat vegan. The prophet Daniel proved it was healthy. Nadav and Avihu, I imagine, thought it was ethical. So, to protest the senseless death of animals, they sacrificed themselves.

Picture this. It’s opening day at the sanctuary. A great celebration. Nadav and Avihu have studied all the rituals. They know when to bring a cow, a sheep, a bird. Now, it is their turn to come forward. But they bring a strange fire, one that was not commanded. Fire flames out from the altar and consumes them.

Suddenly, the party is over. Everyone is shocked. What happened?

Our classical commentators scour the text for clues.

Moses immediately says to Aaron, “That’s what God said. I will be sanctified through those closest to Me.” Ah, say the commentators. So, Nadav and Avihu were truly intimate with God. They meant no harm. But in their passion, they got too close to the flame.

God tells Aaron, “Drink no wine…when you enter the tent of meeting, that you may not die.” Ah, say the commentators. So, Nadav and Avihu were excited for opening day. They partied a little too heartily. Drank one glass of wine too many and then lost focus.

God says, “Giving instructions for the rituals is in Moses’ hands!” Ah, say the commentators. So, Nadav and Avihu took too much initiative. They added to Moses’ instructions. Creatively but not wisely.

Moses reminds the priests to eat the meat offerings. “This is your portion of God’s offerings,” he says. But the priests still refuse to eat the meat. Aaron says, “Given all that happened today, do you really think God would like us to eat this?” So, Moses reminds everyone: it’s okay to eat meat from animals with split hooves who chew their cud.

Ah, said no classical commentator ever, even though it is obvious. So, Nadav and Avihu were vegans! They refused to eat meat. Maybe they threw themselves on the flames in protest. In solidarity with the animals. And to show that death, freely chosen, can be meaningful. A choice the sacrificial animals did not have.

Maybe I should say something about my birthday. About how excited I am to start a new decade. Because the last one has been difficult. My family of origin is small and most of us are gone. There’s no magic ritual that fills the void or heals the grief. But I do have two ways forward. One is my love of learning. There’s always something new to know and understand. The other is my terrific family of choice. My partner Charles and our children Hillary and Eli. You give my life meaning. I choose you.

Presented at Congregation Beth Israel, March 30, 2019.

One Comment
  1. Happy Birthday!!

    (So, I always tell my students…who are skeewimish about the sacrifices…that they were for food. And the care taken in the sacrifice showed respect for the animal. I also tell them that there was not a lot of vegetation in the wilderness, so folks weren’t eating salads! So that comment that the boys were ‘vegan’ was something I never considered!)
    All the best wishes!
    Betsy

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