The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Chukat, Numbers 19:1-22:1
Inner Purity

by Avraham ben Yaakov

"This is the statute of the law which God has commanded, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer that is faultless with no blemish on it and on which no yoke ever came" (Numbers 19:2).

The opening chapter of our portion teaches how the Cohen-priests of Israel are to prepare the ashes of the Red Heifer to be used in the ritual purification of those who have been defiled through physically touching or even being in the same building as a human corpse, dead bones, other body parts or a grave.

Our text teaches that the priest is to take a perfectly red heifer that has never been made to work. Facing the Temple , he slaughters it on a woodpile and burns ­­it to ashes. The ashes are cast into a flask of pure spring water and drops of the mixture are sprinkled with a sprig of hyssop upon those who have become defiled through contact with a dead body etc. They must undergo a seven-day cycle of purification, being sprinkled on the third and seventh days. The final step of the cycle is to immerse their entire head and body in a ritual pool of natural waters. Only then are they permitted to enter the Temple courtyard and partake of holy sacrificial portions or tithes.

This commandment is of particular relevance to the Cohen priests, since it is their function to serve in the Temple and much of their food consists of tithes. The priests are explicitly commanded to avoid all defilement from contact with dead bodies except in the case of the burial of close family members (Leviticus 21:1ff).

On the other hand, the laws of defilement from contact with the dead impinge little on the everyday lives of most ordinary Israelites even after some kind of contact with a dead body etc. Only if they want to enter the Temple precincts must they first undergo the necessary purification.

In our time it is impossible to practice this commandment as nobody has yet found a perfectly red heifer meeting all the necessary requirements. Nevertheless, efforts are afoot to locate or breed a suitable animal and to reinstate fulfillment of this commandment as part of the process of building the Third Temple in Jerusalem .

What does it mean?

The Torah introduces the commandment of the Red Heifer with the words: "This is the statute of the Torah which God commanded." It is said that even King Solomon - who understood the reasons for all the commandments - could not fathom the true meaning and purpose of the Red Heifer. This is what he meant when he wrote: "I said I would get wisdom, but it was far from me" (Ecclesiastes 7:23; Midrash Rabba 19:3).

In the words of Rashi, prince of the rabbinical Bible commentators (Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki 1040-1105): "Because the Satan and the peoples of the world taunt Israel, asking, 'What is this commandment and what is its rationale?' the word statute is written, indicating that this is a decree of God, and you are not at liberty to raise doubts about it" (Rashi on Numbers 19:2).

The idea of that contact with a human corpse or body part somehow "defiles" a person is no less mysterious than the purification process through the ashes of the Red Heifer. Corpses or body parts are things almost all people understandably prefer to keep well away from, and may engender great sorrow and even disgust. But while these feelings may be palpable, the ritual "defilement" itself is quite invisible, has no substance and could not be detected in the defiled person by any physical instrument.

Defilement through contact with a dead body, body parts or graves is but one of a number of radically different types of ritual defilement (Hebrew: tum'ah ) found in the Torah text that affect not only the person who had direct contact but in some cases other people and even chairs, beds, garments, utensils, food and drink that they touch. The different kinds of defilement arise from:

It is obvious that the various categories of "defilement" are all quite different from one another. For example, although the Torah decrees that sexual intercourse and menstruation give rise to their own associated unique kinds of "defilement", these are perfectly natural human functions, and can in no way be compared with biblical leprosy, which is clearly a morbid condition.

The waters of purification

Each of the different kinds of defilement has its own unique process of purification. The one thing that all the different kinds of purification processes have in common that they all require immersion in a ritual pool of natural waters.

In the words of the outstanding codifier of Torah law, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204):

It is clear and evident that the various different kinds of defilement and their methods of purification are decrees laid down by the written law and are not susceptible to human reason: they are inscrutable Torah statutes. The same applies to immersion in water in order to be purified from the various different kinds of defilement. For defilement - tum'ah - is not like physical mud or filth that can be washed off with water. Ritual purification through immersion is a decree of the written law, and its efficacy depends on the person's inner intention . The sages therefore stated that if a person immerses without the proper intention, it is just as if he has not immersed at all.

Although this is ultimately beyond our ability to understand, it does contain an important allusion. We see that when a person has the heartfelt intention of purifying himself, just as soon as he immerses in the water he is ritually pure even though nothing has changed in his physical body.

Likewise when a person steers his heart to purify his soul from the various kinds of spiritual impurities - wicked thoughts, evil traits and attitudes - just as soon as he fully commits himself to cease following his evil promptings, immersing his soul in the waters of Godly knowledge and understanding, he is pure.

Thus it says: 'I have sprinkled upon you pure waters, and you shall be purified from all your impurities, and from all your abominations I shall purify you' (Ezekiel 36:25). Likewise God in His abundant mercies purifies the person from all sin, transgression and guilt. Amen.

(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Ritual Pools 11:12)

The fact that ritual defilement may be physically undetectable does not mean it has no reality. Similarly, people's thoughts and instincts may be physically undetectable but they have a decisive effect upon their lives and conduct.

The things that really have the power to "defile" our lives and behavior are negative traits and attitudes such as causeless hatred, jealousy, vengefulness, cruelty, excessive physical lust and the like. These are the maladies of the soul. To purify ourselves from them may take a lengthy process of purification. A crucial part of the process is to immerse ourselves in the waters of the Torah of the Living God with the inner intention of purifying and improving ourselves through the implementation of its teachings in our actual practical lives.




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