The mystery of death and the meaning behind the mystery have been central concerns of every religious tradition.
This week’s portion includes a detailed description of a now-obsolete rite known as the ritual of the red heifer. This practice was intended to accomplish ritual purification for anyone who had had contact with a corpse. Since it was necessary to be ritually pure in order to participate in the ancient Israelite cult of sacrificial worship, an antidote for corpse contamination was essential.
The Torah clearly mandates that those who descend from the line of Aaron, the kohanim, may not come into contact with a corpse. But Numbers 19 goes beyond the clan of Aaron to address the entire Israelite community. The rite of the red heifer is designed to purify any and all Israelites who become ritually impure.
Contemporary Jews, who have rare occasion to encounter a corpse, often puzzle over the meaning of these rituals. But in ancient Israel, when death was a present experience and burial was the responsibility of family and not professionals, it would have been more common to encounter dead bodies.
Although contemporary Jews no longer need the sort of purification that the red heifer rite provided, we may still resonate with the emotional energies that surround such rituals. The awe with which the ancients viewed the inanimate body that previously carried the soul and spirit is mirrored in our own awareness of the mysterious power of life and death. The contemporary cultural debates about abortion, assisted suicide, euthanasia, and “right to die” laws all display the same awe-filled attitude toward death that the Torah recapitulates.
Perhaps death remains so central because it marks a boundary. The traditional Jewish burial preparations are carried out by a hevra kadisha (a “holy collective”). Those who are entrusted with the responsibility of preparing a body for burial operate at the margins of life, at the line between the living and the dead; the body they prepare was, until only a brief time before, an animate being.
The ritual of the red heifer remains resonant today, not because of its archaic architecture, but because it can symbolize our uneasy experience around death and our need to draw a boundary between life and death. This dynamic survives in Jewish traditions and customs that remain in effect today: plucking up some grass and tossing it over one’s shoulder as one leaves the cemetery, as if to leave death behind, or leaving a laver for handwashing outside the home upon returning from the cemetery following burial.
When we encounter the mystery of life and death, we experience the same awe, wonder, humility, and anxiety as did our ancestors. The Torah, through the rite of the red heifer, understood that each encounter with death was transformative. The ritual of the red heifer was one way in which they tried to contain and control that encounter.
The goal of the red heifer ritual was to restore ritual purity. The goal of Jewish mourning rituals that emerged in later Judaism is to fulfill the mitzvot of k’vod ha’met (respect for the deceased), aveilut (mourning), and nihum aveilim (comforting the mourners). While differing in many ways, the ancient ritual rules and contemporary Jewish mourning practices share a common goal: managing the mystery that lies at the border between life and death, and the encounter with mortality.