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Wisdom and the Red Heifer

How fitting that Parashat Chukat (Num.19:1-22:1) opens with God telling Moses, "Take for yourself a flawless unblemished red cow..." to prepare the Parah Adumah (Ashes of the Red Heifer) which mysteriously cleanses one defiled by contact with the dead. Within the previous parsha, Korach rejected Moses by framing his accusation with very similar words, telling him, “You take too much upon yourselves!” Now HaShem’s words are a dramatic reaffirmation of Moses. The instructions for preparing the Red Cow is in the form of a chok—a decree, established and unchanging. It must be followed whether understood or not. Chok and the Hebrew word for wisdom, chokmah, are derived from the same root. Proverbs and Psalms are replete with the rewards of wisdom:

"My son, if you accept my words and store up my commands within you, turning your ear to wisdom and applying your heart to understanding—indeed, if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord and find the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. He holds success in store for the upright, he is a shield to those whose walk is blameless, for he guards the course of the just and protects the way of his faithful ones. Then you will understand what is right and just and fair—every good path. For wisdom will enter your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul." - Psalms 2:1-10

These days we see those who lack wisdom, quoting the decree of the Parah Adumah and teaching that the cow represents the "perfect sacrifice" of their messiah and the forgiveness of sins. To their detriment, they are mixing two different concepts.

First of all, the burning of the Red Cow is not a sacrifice. It is not Korban which is an offering of an animal that brings atonement, restoring one's relationship with God after being forgiven for sin—and that’s not the purpose of the Parah Adumah. The Jewish Sages teach that there is an important link to the Sin of the Golden Calf but but the Red Cow brings atonement for the Golden Calf. The sin is already forgiven.

The cow is burned completely with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson (a color pigment produced by a worm). The ashes are sifted, then a reed is used to toss a small amount of ashes into a container of water to make the water of purification.

Another vital difference is that process of bringing Korban, requires that any offering is made only on the mizbeach (the Altar) in front of the Mishkan and later, at the entrance of the Temple—this is what distinguishes the preparation of the Ashes of the Red Heifer. The instructions are specific in that the Red Cow must be taken outside the camp of Israel. During the time of the Temple, the cow was led, outside of Jerusalem, to the Mount of Olives. There is one more aspect that distinguishes the burning of the red cow from Korban. The Parah Adumah must come from a heifer, a female cow. Cattle offered as korbanot are males

The only messianic idea connected to the Red Cow is the actual history of the cows that were used to prepare the Parah Adumah. There have been nine red cows throughout history. The tenth will be prepared by Moshiach.

The main reason that this process is considered a mystery is that the kohen burning the red cow becomes unclean and must immerse themselves then remain separate until sundown, also the kohen who gathers the ashes will also become contaminated. According to Rash there are seven kohanim involved in preparing the ashes.

I began this brief discourse on the decree of the Parah Adumah, so let us consider how wisdom or lack of it is unique to the concept of the Parah Adumah. Only Moses possessed the wisdom to perfectly comprehend this decree—affirming his fitness to lead God’s nation. Korach couldn’t grasp the mystery of total faith that is embodied in the decree of the Red Heifer: It echoes the Sinai experience wherein Israel instantly accepted the Torah by exclaiming: “We will do and we will hear!"

Fear of the Lord really is the beginning of Wisdom.

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