The Red Heifer


Moshe Ben-Chaim 



The red heifer was to atone for the Golden Calf. The medrash states, “...let the mother (Red Heifer) come and atone for the child (Golden Calf). Let the one who is Red come and atone for the one who is Gold.”


It is clear that some form of atonement is effectuated for the sin of the Golden Calf via this Red Heifer. But atonement must be defined first. Atonement is normally when one commits never to commit a specific evil act or character trait again. How then can an external act of offering the Red Heifer atone for the sin of the Calf?

I believe the answer lies in a further definition of atonement. Atonement is also referred to on the New Month, Rosh Chodesh. We say in the Musaf (additional) service “zman kapara l'chol toldosam”, “a time of forgiveness for (man)”. Rabbi Samuel Moskowitz had a very good explanation for this: As one approaches the New Month, one has the ability to look upon his previous month's actions as “behind” him. All is “over and done with”. That which he puts behind him, is an act of repentance. When one says that he desires to remove from himself a specific act or character trait, he has commenced atonement. The very image one has of himself as a “new person” starting off the new month is atonement. Meaning, atonement is when one no longer identifies himself as a sinner. He is not the one who sinned last month. A Rabbi explained the atonement of the Scapegoat on Yom Kippur the same way, “when one sees the High Priest confessing his sins, and the sins of all Jews upon the head of the scapegoat, and then sending it off the cliffs of Azazael via the appointed messenger, one is atoned for his sins. This is because one figuratively sees his sins being placed on the scapegoat, and no longer views himself as a sinner. His sins are “removed”, sort of speaking. The Talmud also states that certain individuals are atoned for their sins; a bridegroom, and a person elevated in status. Here, one is embarking upon a new era in his life, and replaces his self image as a single person, with one as a married person, a lower person, with a self image as one with a new elevated status.


G-d then forgives the person for his past crimes, as the person does not identify himself with that “old me”, and G-d does not consider prior sins as having been committed by this “new” person. He is completely forgiven. A true act of kindness by G-d.


I believe the Red Heifer works in the same way. The reason why the Jews sinned with the Golden Calf is because they were accustomed to this species. It was present in Egypt. Their familiarity with this animal allowed them to express their idolatrous wishes. To remove the possibility of the Jew committing such a sin again, G-d created the Red Heifer as a means of removing one's familiarity with this species. How does this work? The answer may be that by creating self contradictory laws in the Red Heifer (it purifies one who is ritually impure, and contaminates one who is pure) one is distanced from a simple understanding of this aspect of the Red Heifer. Meaning, in this one and only instance, G-d desired that the Red Heifer be perplexing in terms of the laws of ritual impurity, so as to distance one from this species. The perplexity of these laws actually causes one to have less identification with this species, and feel alien to it. This alien feeling now combats the previous familiar feeling, and prevents one from attaching himself to this animal, for use of idolatrous purposes. The Jews are therefore atoned for their sin of the Golden Calf.