The Red Heifer and Olam Habah

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s parsha, Chukas, contains the mysterious statute known as the “Red Heifer.”  This presents the extensive rules pertaining to the preparation of the ashes of this special cow and its utilization in the purification of one who has come in contact with a corpse.  Although the deeper secrets of this Mitzvah were known only to Moshe there are important lessons that can be gleaned from a study of the philosophy that it reflects.  A major question that lies at the heart of this matter is, why should the dead body of a human be a source of ritual impurity known as tumah?  It should be noted that an animal carcass does not produce the same effect.  Only a human corpse renders impure those who touch it or even are in the room in which it lies.  What is it about the dead body of a human that makes it an object of defilement?

It is a fundamental principle of Torah that there are other things besides death that cause contamination.  The greatest source of tumah is sinful behavior.  This can be seen from the verse in the Torah which speaks about repentance and Divine forgiveness.  Referring to the atonement afforded by Yom Kippur the Torah says…”…from all of your sins you shall be purified before Hashem.”  Sin has a spiritual effect on the soul of the person and causes him to become impure.  It represents a defect of the Divine soul which Hashem has implanted in man.  In the first prayer we recite each morning we proclaim that the neshama Hashem has implanted in us is pure.  Hashem endowed the soul with the knowledge, wisdom and strength necessary to master the instinctual forces which emanate from the physical dimension of man.

That is why the Rabbis referred to our sojourn on earth as the Milchemet Hachayim (battle of existence).  We are involved in an internal conflict in which we must reign supreme over our corporal desires.  We are not to deny them but only to avoid being overpowered to the extent that the pursuit of sensual pleasure and the fantasies they produce is the governing principle of our lives.  Our attachment to the physical aspect of our lives is extremely powerful and is the source of our fear of death.  The extreme sadness of death is based on the mistaken notion that it is “the end” of our existence.  We associate life with that which is physical and find it impossible to believe that the soul which is detached from the body at “death” partakes of a higher form of existence.  In my opinion this is a major reason for the institution of tumat meit (contamination of a corpse).  We naturally recoil from a human corpse.  We seek to disassociate ourselves from it because it arouses a fear of death.  The Torah wants us to realize that the fear is misplaced as it is rooted in the association of life with the physical.  Spiritual impurity is the result of false ideas, philosophies and values that we live by.  The waters of purification symbolize the Torah, whose truthful ideas cleanse the soul and enable us to live according to the spiritual truths which provide the most meaningful and satisfying life in this world and qualify us for eternal life in Olam Habah (world to come).

Shabbat Shalom