We’re Gonna Wash Those Ashes Right Out of Our Hair: Hukkat 2017

by Adam J. Rosenbaum

Pre-Game Chatter: How do you cleanse yourself of bad experiences and memories? Do you try to rid yourself of them entirely, or do you release them bit by bit?
In one of the Torah’s most mysterious passages, we read of the ritual of the red heifer, one that is supposed to absolve the community of sin:

The Pitch: “The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be impure until evening.” – Numbers 19:7

Swing #1: “While the red heifer served to cleanse the unclean, it rendered the clean individuals who had contact with it. The reason for this is that the red heifer served to atone for the sin the Children of Israel committed when they worshipped the Golden Calf. The Sages point out that it certainly did not behoove the Israelites of that generation to sin. But in order that it might show to future generations a way in which they might be able to repent of their sins (Avoda Zara 4), that generation alone was punished and it was through that unclean generation that a means was given to the generations of the future to cleanse themselves by repentance. So, too, is the red heifer, which atones for the worship of the Golden Calf. It serves as a means to cleanse the unclean, but it is unclean in itself so that the priest must wash his garments after contact with it.” – Hatham Sofer

Swing #2: “The ashes of the red heifer by themselves had the power to contaminate, or make impure, both those who prepared it and their clothing. The ashes are able to both purify and defile. Ashes, by themselves (which are, after all, from a dead animal), made the priest and his clothing impure. But when mixed with water, a living substance, they also have the opposite effect, to render purity from impurity.” – Rabbi Audrey S. Pollack, from The Women’s Torah Commentary, edited by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein

Swing #3: “All who have participated in the preparation of this purificatory substance have become, for the day in question, ‘unclean’ because they have had to do with things imbued with a ‘taboo’ (the original affinity between ‘holy’ and ‘unclean’ is clear here) and have therefore to undertake certain washings; this is obligatory for the priest as well as for the vaguely defined person who has carried out the burning of the heifer and for the ‘man’ who is differentiated from the last mentioned and is described as being ‘clean’ at the outset and who has gathered together and deposited the substance.” – Martin Noth, Numbers

Late-Inning Questions: Why do you think our commentators have such wildly different views of the purpose of the red-heifer ritual? Which interpretation (if any) makes the most sense to you? How might befuddling ritual nevertheless be meaningful to the ancient Israelites? Are there befuddling rituals in our lives that are nevertheless meaningful?

On-Deck at Emanu-El: Thanks so much to our Men’s Club for organizing a pre-Shabbat Independence Day cookout before tonight’s services!

The Big Inning at the End: This year’s All-Star Game will be the first in more than a decade that will be purely an exhibition; home-field advantage will no longer go to the winning league. Does this make this year’s game less or more appealing than those of previous years?

Shabbat Shalom!