Shabbat candles: 8:13 p.m.
Torah: Num. 19:1–21:35
Haftorah: Judges 11:1-33
Havdalah: 9:23 p.m.
The mystical ritual of the red heifer [Numbers 19:2] is a chok, a commandment we follow not because it is rational, logical or moral, but because it is Divinely ordained. The very notion of the Kohen (Priest) purifying an individual who has been defiled by contact with a dead body, through the process of sprinkling him or her with the ashes of a red heifer mixed with spring waters, seems irrational.
The ritual is even paradoxical because the Kohanim involved in preparing this mixture are, in fact, themselves defiled by the process. How can a substance with the capacity to purify the defiled simultaneously defile those who are pure? Why does the Torah place it in Bamidbar (Numbers), right after Korach’s rebellion and immediately before the transgression of Moses at the rock?
The Kohen is our teacher and guardian, our religious inspiration and guide. His special garb reflects his unique vocation [Exodus 28:442]. The shoulder strap of his apron (ephod) and the breastplate (hoshen mishpat) worn next to his heart bear the names of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, demonstrating his love and responsibility for the nation. Inscribed on the headplate placed on his forehead (the place of the mind), are the words, “Sacred Unto The Lord,” expressing his commitment to teaching Torah and sacred living in accordance with God’s commandments.
Clearly, love and commitment to the nation combined with intellectual propagation of Torah are the twin building blocks of the Kohenteacher’s vocation. How are these ideals related to the red heifer?
For nearly 300 years, Eastern European Jews had two models of religious leadership; the Lithuanian rosh yeshiva and the chasidic rebbe. The rosh yeshiva devoted most of his attention to the priestly headplate (tzitz), the intellectual pursuit of Torah, while the rebbe dedicated most of his attention to the priestly breastplate and shoulder strap, the pastoral concerns of his flock.
I’d like to suggest that the paradox of the red heifer ritual will serve to bring together the Kohen’s love for his people with his commitment to teach them. After all, if my friend falls into a mud pile will I not naturally become sullied and muddied myself in the process of lifting him out? Built into the very enterprise of purifying the defiled is the fact that the purifier himself must be touched by some of the impurity! This is why the Kohen must always bless the nation “out of love,” and bring his love for his people to his vocation of teaching them Torah. When the Kohenleader truly loves every Jew, he assumes a new level of responsibility. In his desire to rescue fellow Jews from contact with spiritual death, he must willingly sacrifice some of his own comforts and even some of his spirituality.
A loving leader must be ready to leave the religious comfort of yeshiva and a Torahtrue community to make his way to the furthest hinterlands to infuse them with the light of spirituality. This is what God tells Moses when he sends him away from his Torah study — his unique rendezvous with the Divine at the time of the Golden Calf: “Get down from … Mount Sinai and go down to the errant Jews worshiping the Golden Calf; the only reason I bestowed greatness upon you, Moses, was for the sake of Israel. If your nation is sinning, what need have I of you?” [BT Brachot 32a].
From the beginning, Moses is totally committed to his people. When he kills the Egyptian to defend an Israelite slave he sacrifices his position as an Egyptian prince and risks his own life.
However, the endless ingratitude and insurrections of the Israelites finally wears him down, so that eventually he calls the Israelites “rebels,” striking the rock instead of speaking to it.
Herein lies the connection between the two parts of our biblical portion, the ritual of the red heifer and Moses’ sin and punishment. Once a leader loses even the smallest amount of his capacity to love his people, even if his feelings are justified by the shabby and derelict way they have treated him, he can no longer lead them.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe was a profound scholar and leader. The timeless and constant message of his Chabad movement is love: “Be among the disciples of Aaron, love humanity, and with that love, you will bring everyone close to Torah” [Ethics of the Fathers 1:12].
The preservation of Torah requires a people strong enough and determined enough to devote their lives to it, even to risk their spiritual lives. The Lubavitcher Rebbe raised an army of shluchim (emissaries) whose love and commitment is so great that they readily leave their study halls, families and communities for the farthest recesses of the globe to assist Jews and bring Jews back to Torah.
When I asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a blessing before leaving New York City for the unchartered hills of Efrat, he said: “The Almighty will extend your ministry in Efrat until the coming of the Redeemer, but I must send emissaries all over the world who will be modern on the outside and Chabad on the inside.”
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chief rabbi of Efrat and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone.