An Analysis of the פרה אדומה

Rabbi Mendy Feder

The laws of  פרה אדומה is a representation of the classic חוק. The rationale for the פרה אדומה  is not apparent.  It is the decree from the creator and thus we cannot impeach its validity. Rashi points out that the nations of the world will taunt us concerning this practice. Our father Abraham taught the world the concept of the unity of G-d and a rational system of justice and righteousness to guide our lives. He debunked pagan practices which appeal to mans insecurity and trepidations.  These practices are a product of man’s imagination. The חוק of פרה אדומה is thus susceptible to the ridicule of the gentile nations. Its laws seem ritualistic and beyond rational comprehension.  However, it is a necessary component of the Halachic system.  Man must recognize the limitation of human knowledge.  The knowledge of our creator is limitless and qualitatively different from man’s knowledge.  As such a חוק is not irrational but its laws to the observer seem beyond understanding. However, it is the obligation of the Torah Jew not to denigrate adherence to a חוק. As with every mitzvah it is evidence of the creator’s chsesed designed to benefit man.  Therefore, the reason for the mitzvah is important as it helps one appreciate the beauty of the Torah system and the infinite knowledge of our creator.   

This article will attempt to explain some of the concepts of פרה אדומה in the hope that by understanding this mitzvah it will achieve the objectives of the Torah and help man function at a higher ethical level.   

According to the Torah, when one comes in contact with a corpse, he becomes טמא. He is unable to enter the Mikdash and serve the creator.  Impurity is a barrier between man and G-d.  He must remove the state of טומאה before entering the temple.  If he enters the temple while he is impure, he is subject to the penalty of excision.  It is therefore essential for service to Hashem that man remove his impurity.  The פרה אדומה is the essential component in removing the state of impurity and allows man to again be   עובד ד.   The Nation of Israel is commanded to take a completely red cow, that does not have a blemish. This red cow must never had a yoke placed upon it.  The Kohen takes the cow outside the camp where it is slaughtered.  The blood of the slaughtered פרה אדומה is sprinkled towards the Tent of Meeting.  The cow is burnt in its entirety in the presence of the Kohen.  The Kohen thereafter takes cedar wood, hyssop, and a crimson thread.  He throws them into the ashes of the burning cow. The Kohen places the ashes into a new earthenware utensil.  The utensil already contains מים חיים, fresh water drawn from either a spring or river.  A hyssop is dipped into the mixture and is used to sprinkle on the impure person on the third and seventh day of his impurity. At the end of the seventh day, the impure person immerses into a Mikvah and emerges as a טהור. 

This entire procedure seems rather ritualistic and puzzling.  It is a service which purifies an impure person and seems like  עבודה ,but yet it is performed outside the Mikdash.  Additionally perplexing is that the priests that are involved in this service of the ashes of purification, themselves become impure.

The Torah is teaching us a very basic and essential idea regarding approaching the Mikdash and service of Hashem. Avraham taught the world the concept of אחדות ד, the unity of G-d.  The creator is the source of reality and is the sole cause of what happens to man and mankind collectively.  He rules the world with השגחה פרטית , divine providence and השגחה כללית, the laws of nature. There is no other force and no other variable other than the will of G-d.  The Torah teaches us numerous times that man has free will and is urged to בחרת בחיים .  Man must live an ethical life, a life of justice guided by Emes and the principles of the Torah, the word of G-d. Man must aspire to lead an existence based upon his צלם אלוקים, his rational faculty.  The creator bestowed man with free will. Torah Jews must strive to live life based on G-d's will which dictates that the best and most fulfilling existence is when man lives life guided by the dictates of the Torah.  Therefore, reward and punishment is determined by man living a life of  צדקה ומשפט  and Chesed.  This alone is the exclusive determination of man's relationship with his creator.  The Torah constantly derides the pagan lifestyle of idolatry.  The practices of the idolaters are a figment of man’s imagination. They have no basis in reality and are a corruption of how man relates to the creator, the ultimate source of reality.  As such, service to G-d can only be achieved as set out by the creator.  Any attempt to manipulate G-d's will through the magical and mystical is merely an expression of mans desire to shrug off his responsibility to בחרת בחיים, and to live life in accordance with the principles of the Torah. The יצר הרע, the instinctual part of man is so powerful that it causes man to perform the most absurd practices.  It is an attempt to somehow manipulate the creator to take care of his personal needs and desires.  Idolatry and all the practices of the magical and mystical are merely blind attempts at self preservation.  Man lacks the courage to do battle with the forces of the instinctual. Man lacks conviction to remove his energies away from the self and the life of physical pleasures and enjoyments.  Torah life desires that man live a life guided by the ethical principles of truth, justice and kindness. This existence removes one from the petty concerns of the self and allows man to gain perspective of the world of reality. Man can live the life of Torah and liberate his energies to the world of ideas. This world is guided by the creator, the only essential existence and the source of infinite knowledge.  Therefore, service of G-d and man’s relationship to the creator is solely based on mans actions guided by his free will.  It is a difficult task for man to destroy the world of the instinctual and direct his energies to the world of reality. It is so painful that man creates a world of paganism which embraces the magical and the mystical. Man attempts to manipulate the ostensible forces in his world to determine his destiny.  This is man’s futile attempt to shrug off his responsibility to utilize his free will to forge a relationship with his creator. This is a life whereby he is removed from the world of self preservation and instinctual pleasures and is judged solely based upon his acts of justice and kindness. Such an existence is guided by the principles of truth, not fueled by the interest of the self and the hedonistic desires of the instinctual. His   צלם אלוקים, rational faculty, allows him to reject the pagan world of the magical and mystical.  He can now develop a relationship with his creator based upon his appreciation of the infinite wisdom of the creator as evidenced by the Torah and his creations.

The Torah Jew is guided by the laws of the Torah. The Torah laws include חוקים , laws like פרה אדומה which seem to cater to the practices of the pagans but is quite the contrary.  It is a reflection of G-d's infinite חכמה , removed from the false world of man’s imagination.  The practices of פרה אדומה is a means to purify man. It is done חוץ למחנה, outside the camp. Practices which cater to the magical or mystical have no place in the Mikdash.  The Temple is the designated place where man encounters his creator, the source of ultimate reality and wisdom. The creator gave us the laws of פרה אדומה  to help ameliorate the human condition. We must be vigilant against the forces of paganism which corrupts man's mind into giving credence to the world of the mystical.  An analysis of the institution of  פרה אדומה will enlighten us to the basic principle of how we must approach our creator.  It should teach us as mere mortals how we can serve בורא עולם.

A red heifer was considered sacred by Apollo. It is merely a cow but yet it draws man's imagination.  A cow which is totally red is very rare and unique.  It appeals to the sense of the mystical.  It also has to be free of any blemishes.  It conjurers images of a holy cow.  Additionally, it never had a yoke placed on it.  People view not working as some kind of virtue.  A holy man is perceived as one who does not work.  Somehow, in some magical fashion, money will flow like Manna from heaven.  However, the Torah teaches us “by the sweat of your brow will man eat bread.”  It is apparent that the פרה אדומה with all its nuances appeals to the magical.  The Torah teaches us in order to remove the state of impurity you must slaughter the cow and burn its ashes.  This symbolizes that any attachment to the world of the mystical must be obliterated.  It is thus significant that this service must be done outside the camp.  The Kohen sprinkles the blood of the cow towards the קודש הקדשים, the place of Hashem’s divine presence. Only after he slaughters the cow outside the camp and expunges any sense of the mystical can he yearn to re-enter the Mikdash.  The Kohen's sprinkling of the blood toward the Mikdash indicates that the service of the   פרה אדומה is essential to the purity process and his re-entry to the Mikdash.

In order for the ashes of the burnt cow to be a purifier, the Kohen must throw in its ashes, cedar wood, hyssop and a crimson thread.  These ingredients are essential for the purification process. The cedar tree is a very tall tree.  It grows very quickly and can live for one thousand years.  This reflects man's ego which gives man a heightened sense of self importance.  When man has a big ego it generally draws his energies.  Like a cedar tree, when man has an overestimation of the self, his ego grows very rapidly.  A cedar tree lives a long time.  Similarly, when one is arrogant, it is a trait which is hard to uproot and is long lasting. The Torah is teaching us that if one has an exaggerated sense of the self it clouds his ability to be an objective thinker.  Anything he analyzes will always be tainted by his self interest.  Also a person who is self centered cannot tolerate any pain to the self.  It is akin to a child who is self centered.   A child when he experiences pain, he cries and throws a tantrum.  In the same manner an egotistical person cannot tolerate pain. Therefore, when he cannot understand anything, it is painful.  His ego will not allow him to recognize the limitation of his knowledge nor tolerate the resulting pain.  The obsession with the self will also blind his vision of reality. It will prevent him from changing his perspective on life and enter the world of true Torah observance.  He cannot tolerate change because directing his energies away from himself is too painful.  He cannot have a relationship with his creator who relates to man based upon his ethical perfection.  A Torah Jews energies are guided by moral values where the concerns of others are paramount.  The egotistical man needs the love of his creator because he feels special.  However, he cannot change and relate to the creator who judges man based upon his ethical perfection.  The egotistical man will want a G-d he can manipulate and that can relate to him as a special person.  He will ultimately find the world of the magical and mystical very attractive. He can satisfy the needs of the self by simply engaging in Pagan practices. He imagines he can manipulate the super natural forces to take care of his personal needs. His absorption in his own self centered world will blind him from recognizing the inane nature of these practices. The Torah tells him to take cedar wood, which is likened to the egotistical man and throw it into the burning ashes of the פרה אדומה.  One can only be purified by obliterating the personality of the self centered man.  How can such a person aspire to become pure? He takes hyssop together with the cedar wood.  The hyssop is colloquially known as the humble bush.  It is a plant which grows close to the ground.  However, it is a very unique bush.  It is very colorful and pleasant in appearance.  It is pleasant smelling and can produce fragrant flowers. The hyssop also has many functions. It can be used as an antiseptic, cough reliever and expectorant. It is also used as a medicinal plant. It remedies many ills.           The Torah is providing us with an amazing insight.  The hyssop is the remedy to the ills of the cedar wood.  The Kohen throws in a crimson thread to reflect that the cedar is indicative of a flaw in the human personality. It is the source of חטא and needs to undergo the purification process.  A person who is arrogant and lives life being self absorbed needs to change.  His characteristics are like cedar wood.  He must act like a hyssop. He needs to humble himself and change the focus of his life.  He should remove his energies from his ego and be more concerned with the external world. He must value the needs and concerns of other human beings.  The hyssop is a medicinal bush but it can also remedy the illness of the soul.  If an individual can change and view the world in an objective framework, he will accomplish much more. Others will view him in a pleasant way similar to the pleasant appearance and aroma of the hyssop bush.  His life will be directed away from the self and his energies will be focused on helping others.  This is the Torah lifestyle.  Such as individual will slowly develop into a more rational and objective thinker.  The focus on the concerns of the self and his huge ego will no longer blind him.  He will be capable of a more accurate analysis of phenomena.  His thought processes will no longer be polluted by "how does it effect me" attitude.  He will no longer be drawn to the world of the mystical and magical.  Such a world develops into a pagan lifestyle whereby he attempts to change the external world to conform to this desires.  He will now have a new found courage to live his life from a different perspective, no longer based solely on his selfish desires.  He will be more involved in the world of Chesed and learning.  He will develop a relationship with his creator by using his free will properly. His actions will be based upon a newly developed appreciation of the world of reality.

One may ask since the hyssop represents the virtuous man void of any arrogance, the humble man, why must the hyssop be burnt together with the cedar wood? Humility can be a double edged sword. Modesty must emanate from a true sense of humility.  All too often a person can use a false sense of humility as an expression of his ego. True humility is where one appreciates his insignificance when in the presence of his creator. Borah Olem is the source of infinite knowledge, the creator of all and the first cause. False humility is as harmful to the self as outright arrogance.  It also must be burnt and expunged from the human personality.  A person can never serve G-d with this attitude. It is the festering ground where the pagan man is nourished and flourishes.           It is appropriate that the message of the פרה אדומה is learned when an individual is susceptible  to internalize these values.  The purification process takes place when a person is טמא מת. Most people encounter a corpse when a loved one leaves this world.  At such a critical time in their life they realize the limitation of the physical and the insignificance of the self.  Even when one encounters any copse it is a stark recognition of his limited existence. Any over estimation of the self will be shattered. After such a realization the purification process begins.  It will help one achieve a new perspective on life. This will help in service of Hashem and a new found appreciation of reality.  Therefore, when he becomes טהור and re-enters the Mikdash it will be with a true sense of עבודת ד.    The most puzzling aspect of the פרה אדומה  is that the burnt ashes is a source of purification and at the same time creates impurity to the Kohen who collects the ashes.  It purifies but also contaminates.  An impure person yearns for purity to re-enter the Mikdash and service of Hashem.  The ashes are sprinkled upon him and all of a sudden he is reborn, he is pure.  This also creates a magical experience.  The Torah is trying to teach us quite the contrary.  The ashes are not magical.  The purification that evolves through this process is when a person comprehends the concepts of this חוק which is the true מטהר. The individual upon analysis of this mitzvah will gain a new appreciation of reality.  He can re-enter the Mikdash only after he purges his self centered existence and recognize the beautiful world that G-d created.  These same ashes contaminate the Kohen engaged in the process.  The Kohen may feel special or self important since he is essential for the purification of the person who is impure. The Torah teaches us that the same Kohen becomes contaminated. Any notion of arrogance is antithetical to the process of purification.  One can only become טהור when these sentiments are burnt and removed from the human personality.  The ashes are not magical purifying agents.  The Medresh in this context quotes the Pasuk in Job 14:3 regarding this concept.  "Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean one, is it not the one?" (G-d) .

The purification process is completed in a very enlightening manner.  The ashes are mixed with fresh water into a new earthen ware vessel.  It is essential the fresh water be poured into the new earthen ware vessel before the ashes are mixed in.  The new vessel reflects that the impure person, when understanding the concepts of the פרה אדומה, emerges as a newly born individual.  The fresh water must be placed in the vessel first. After the fresh water is in the vessel only then are the burnt ashes inserted.  The burnt ashes represent the new personality of man void of any sense of egotistical notions.  It is then ready to be placed into the vessel. Then the personality of man is changed and a new person emerges. The Kohen takes hyssop, dips it into the mixture and sprinkles it on the impure person.  The hyssop, the lowly bush, is the vehicle used to sprinkle the mixture and purify the contaminated person.  Only when he is void of any sense of arrogance and humbles himself, can he become pure. The completion of the purification process now demands that the טמא, after being sprinkled,  immerses in a mikvah.  He emerges as a טהור, one who is refreshed with a new identity and a new sense of purpose.  It is only then that he can ready himself to re-enter the Mikdash.  Only then can he encounter the source of unlimited knowledge, the only one essential existence.  Only then can he encounter his creator and the creator of the universe.  Only then is he ready for service of Hashem void of any sense of the magical and mystical.