The Red Heifer and the Road to Freedom

March 30, 2024

The holiday of Passover is imminently approaching, and breadcrumbs everywhere are making themselves scarce. At least, I hope that’s the case – for bread is forbidden during the eight days of the holiday. In addition to the meticulous cleaning, cooking, and overall holiday preparation, there’s something else that marks the build-up to this holiday, and that’s the four special Biblical portions that are publicly read on the four Sabbaths between the holidays of Purim and Passover. One such reading is the portion regarding the Red Heifer, the enigmatic ritual performed by the High priests. But here’s the “cow-fusing” part. What does this portion have to do with Passover? The other portions seem intuitively connected. The commandment to destroy Amalek perhaps echoes the evils of Haman, a nod to the holiday of Purim.

And the upcoming portion of “HaChodesh” reminds us to sanctify the new month, a commandment that was given to the Israelites as they fled Egypt – something we read in preparation for Passover.

But a Red Heifer? What’s the connection to Passover? And while we’re asking good questions, what’s the reasoning behind this moo-sterious law in the Bible. 

The Red Heifer, detailed in Numbers, involved sacrificing a red cow and using its ashes for ritual purification.

And if you’re wondering why a red cow, and what the connection is to purification – you’re not alone! The commandment of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) is famously described in the Bible as a “chukat ha-Torah” (a “decree” of the Bible), which commentators for thousands of years have interpreted to mean a law whose exact reasons will always elude us. Basically, this is a commandment that we aren’t meant to fully understand even as we must adhere to it. A test of faith.

We do have a few more clues about it, however. The ritual itself purified those who had come into contact with dead bodies, allowing them to re-enter the sacred space and community life. The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a contemporary Bible scholar, picks up on this and offers a profound insight into the nature of this chok, this mysterious decree.

Do you ever feel – truly and deeply – that faith operates on a totally different level than reason? Like, I can feel something in my bones, even if it’s hard to say it out loud. Well, Rabbi Sacks suggests that the Red Heifer is similar. It symbolizes renewal and hope after coming in contact with death – one of life’s rawest moments. And as an “unknowable” chok, it encourages us to set aside, just for a moment, our need to rationalize and reason about everything. It’s not telling us not to wonder – or even question the reasoning. But within the uncertainty, it’s as if the Bible is encouraging our purity and faith to emerge from our deepest and most intimate selves. I don’t know everything – and sometimes that’s okay, is the message we can learn from the Red Heifer. 

And there lies the connection to Passover. Because Passover is the holiday when we feel our connection to the story of the Exodus more than at any time of the year. Where we reenact the pain, suffering, and ultimate triumph of redemption. Just as the Pascal offering required not only physical but emotional purity—a readiness to let go of past burdens and to place unwavering faith in God—so too does the Passover narrative invite us to cleanse our hearts of despair. 

It is a time when we emerge, as with the Red Heifer, from contact with death and into renewal, reminded that faith leads us through the darkest of waters into the light of redemption.

Redemption is both a deeply personal and a profoundly communal aspiration. Let’s let the lesson of the Red Heifer motivate us to embrace our faith— especially in the face of life’s greatest mysteries.

Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

Sara Lamm

Sara Lamm is a content editor for TheIsraelBible.com and Israel365 Publications. Originally from Virginia, she moved to Israel with her husband and children in 2021. Sara has a Masters Degree in Education from Bankstreet college and taught preschool for almost a decade before making Aliyah to Israel. Sara is passionate about connecting Bible study with “real life’ and is currently working on a children’s Bible series.

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