The Heifer and the Calf


A maid’s child once dirtied the royal palace. Said the king: “Let his mother come and clean up her child’s filth.” By the same token, G-d says: “Let the [red] heifer atone for the deed of the [golden] calf.”

Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 8

The Torah defines “life” as attachment to G-d.[1] Thus, the righteous are considered to be alive even after their physical demise, while “transgressors [of the divine will], even in their lifetimes, are considered to be dead.”[2] A life disconnected from its source is a pseudo-life, a life devoid of its essence and raison d’être.

This explains the connection between the “red heifer,” which is the divinely-prescribed antidote to the ritual impurity caused by contact with death, and the sin of the golden calf.

Immediately upon his creation, Adam, the first man, acknowledged his commitment to G-d as the essence of his vitality.[3] But on that very day, a breach appeared in the link between creature and Creator. Man transgressed the divine will (by eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge); as a result, the phenomenon of death became part of the human experience.

Twenty-six generations later, death was vanquished once more. G-d descended  upon Mount Sinai, restoring His original, intimate bond with His creation[4]; man committed himself unequivocally to the fulfillment of the divine will,[5] restoring his original, absolute connection to his source of life and liberating him from the clutches of the angel of death. [6]

But this time, too, the unadulterated flow of vitality from heaven to earth was short-lived. Forty days after the people of Israel stood at Sinai, they transgressed the divine decree “You shall have no other gods before Me”[7]by worshipping a calf of gold. The pestilence of death, introduced into the world by Adam’s sin and banished at Sinai, was re-introduced by the sin of the Golden Calf.[8]

Three Degrees of Relation

As the ultimate symptom of man’s disconnection from G-d, death is the “father of all fathers of impurity.”[9] Torah law delineates several forms of ritual impurity, but the most severe is that generated by a dead body.[10] While other forms of impurity are conducted by touching or moving the impure object, the impurity of death is unique in that it is conducted also via a “canopy”: if a person so much as finds himself for the briefest of moments under one roof with a dead body, he is rendered ritually impure until the ashes of the Red Heifer are sprinkled upon him.[11]

Chassidic teaching speaks of three general degrees of relation: internal, immediately encompassing, and distantly encompassing (penimi, makif hakarov and makif harachok). One example are the three basic material needs of man: food, clothing and shelter. Food is “internal,” entering into the body and becoming part of its very substance. Clothing is an “immediate encompasser,” enveloping the body from without but in direct relation to it (a larger person needs larger clothes while a smaller person requires smaller clothes). A home is “distantly encompassing” of the person, surrounding him in a way that bears no direct relation to him.

In the human psyche, these correspond to the intellect, will and desire. The intellect is the “food” of the soul: rational truths are ingested and digested by the person and incorporated by him as part of his mindset and thought-process. More “encompassing” is the will, which is essentially supra-rational, and thus “beyond” the person, imposing itself upon his internal self from without. Nevertheless, the will is an “immediate encompasser,” fitting the rational self like a garment fits a body (thus, a person will give rational explanations why he wants something; these “reasons” are not the true cause of his will, but the very fact that it can be explained means that the will is not completely removed from the rational self).[12] The “distant encompasser” is desire,[13] which is completely supra-rational and inexplicable, bearing no visible relation to the internal composition of the soul.[14]

Paradoxically, the more “distant” a thing is, the more integral it is to the person’s self-definition. Thus, a person’s sense of self is reflected more in his clothing than in what he eats, and his home is more integral to his identity than his clothes.[15] A person will sacrifice more for what he wants than for what he understands, and his supra-rational “desires” touch him even more deeply and are even more essential to him. In truth, however, this is no paradox: because the more “encompassing” elements of a person’s life are rooted so deeply in his essence, they are too profound to be assimilated by the finite faculties of his conscious self.

Therein lies the significance of the fact that the impurity spawned by death is conducted via a “canopy,” pervading the building which houses it and contaminating everything under its roof. Other impurities affect only the “internal” aspect of the person, or, at most, the “immediately encompassing” areas of his being; correspondingly, they are conducted by direct or second-hand contact. It is a mark of the primacy of the impurity of death that it infiltrates also the “distantly encompassing” aspect of the person, and correspondingly extends itself also via a “distant encompasser”—the house or “canopy” that shelters him.

The Antidote

To purify one who has been contaminated by contact with death, the Torah commands that a red heifer be slaughtered and burned, and its ashes mixed with “living water”—water from a spring issuing from the earth. These “waters of purification” are then sprinkled on the contaminated person on the third and seventh day of a seven-day purification period.

For if death is the symptom of disconnection from G-d, the mitzvah, or divine commandment, is the means by which we achieve connection and union with Him. And the law of the red heifer is the archetypal mitzvah—the commandment that embodies all 613 commandments of the Torah.

The law of the red heifer is a chok—an utterly supra-rational divine decree. It prompted King Solomon, the “wisest of men,”[16] to say:

“All these [Torah laws] I have comprehended. But the chapter of the red heifer—though I have examined it, questioned it, and delved into it—‘I[17] thought to be wise to it, but it eludes me.’”[18]

The Midrash relates that when G-d taught this law to Moses, the receiver of the Torah was incredulous.

“Master of the Universe!” he cried out. “This is a purification?” To which G-d replied: “Moses, it is a chok, a decree that I have decreed, and no creature can fully comprehend My decrees.”[19]

Yet the Torah introduces the law of the red heifer with the statement, “This is the decree of the Torah,”[20] implying that it is the prototype for all the Torah’s commandments. For in essence, every mitzvah—including such ultra-rational mitzvot as “Do not kill” and “Honor your father and your mother”—is a supra-rational decree of G-d. The various reasons and explanations that can be given for many a mitzvah are but a surface rationality that conceals its supra-rational depths.

But the law of the red heifer is more than an exemplar of the supra-rationality of the mitzvot. The details and particulars of this mitzvah embody the various forms and functions that the mitzvah assumes, making it a microcosm of the 613 commandments of the Torah.

The law of the red heifer is replete with contradictory themes and provisions. The ashes of the red heifer remove the most severe of all impurities; yet those involved in its preparation (those who slaughter the heifer, burn it, and collect its ashes) become ritually impure themselves.[21] The heifer itself is a paradox of the lowly and the lofty: it must be completely red—a color which has negative connotations in Torah and Torah law[22]; the Torah commands that it be slaughtered outside the holy city of Jerusalem (in contrast with other korbanot, which must be slaughtered in the courtyard of the Holy Temple)[23]; on the other hand, it must be “perfect, without blemish”[24]; it is slaughtered within the sight of the Holy Temple and its blood is sprinkled “toward the Holy of Holies”[25]; it is prepared by a kohen—according to one opinion, by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest), wearing the “white clothes” reserved for the Yom Kippur service in the Holy of Holies.[26] And the purifying mixture of ashes and water is a combination of two contradictory forces: fire, which represents the power of ascent, and water, which embodies the quality of “settling down” and saturation.

For this is the paradox of the mitzvah, by which G-d enjoins us to descend into the physical world in order to sanctify it, and at the same time remain aloof of its materiality and profanity. In general, this is the function of the two categories of mitzvot: the 365 “prohibitions,” by which we sanctify ourselves by spurning the corporeality of the physical state, and the 248 “positive commandments,” by which we interact with and develop the physical world as a vessel for G-dliness. In particular, each individual mitzvah is both a “positive” and “prohibitive” act: an act of rejection and acceptance, of transcendence and involvement, an amalgam of ascending fire and descending water. A mitzvah is man living a physical life, accepting the physical state as his means of connection with G-d, and at the same time remaining a spiritual being, refusing to allow the physical state to define his life and dictate his priorities.

How does one act upon the physical world without being absorbed by it? How does one ensure that one’s “water” element is not muddied by its descent? The answer lies in the Torah’s stipulation that the water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer must be “living water”—“water that has seeped through the veins of the earth… and is thus refined and rarefied.”[27]

“Earth” represents humility and self-abnegation (as in the prayer “May my soul be as dust to all”[28]). When a person’s involvement with the material is filtered via the earth of self-abnegation to G-d (i.e., the absence of all motives and aspirations save the fulfillment of His will), his water is “living water,” uncontaminable by the negative encumbrances of material life. Mixed with the fire of spiritual striving, it cleanses the world of the stain of death, of its separateness and disconnection from G-d, and restores the primordial harmony between Creator and creation.

Based on an entry in the Rebbe’s journal dated “Chukat, 5700 [1940], Vichy”[29]

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1]. Deuteronomy 4:4; ibid., 30:20; et al.

[2]. Talmud, Berachot 18a-b. Cf. Isaiah 59:2: “Your sins separate between you and your G-d”; Tanya, Iggeret HaTeshuvah, ch. 5.

[3]. “When Adam stood up on his feet, he saw that all creatures feared him and followed him as servants do their master. He then said to them: ‘You and I both, come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before G-d our maker’” (Zohar, part I, 221b).

[4]. Cf. Midrash Rabbah, Shir HaShirim 5:1: “I came to My home—to the place where My primary presence was at first… [for] Adam’s sin caused the divine presence to depart [from the physical world] … and then Moses came and brought it down to the earth.”

[5]. Exodus 19:8, 24:3 and 24:7.

[6]. Talmud, Shabbat 146a; Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 41:9.

[7]. Second of the Ten Commandments proclaimed at Sinai, Exodus 20:3.

[8]. Zohar, part I, 52b. See Tanya, ch. 36; Igrot Kodesh, vol. V, p. 310, note 6 and sources cited there.

[9]. See Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. I, p. 50 (s.v. avi avot hatumah), and sources cited there.

[10]. Maimonides’ introduction to his Commentary on the Mishnah; cf. Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet 8:5.

[11]. Numbers 19:14.

[12]. There are, of course, wants and desires that stem not from the supra-rational self but from wholly rational motives and reasonings. These belong to the “internal” element of the psyche. “Will” (ratzon), in this context, is a term that applies exclusively to those aspirations that stem from the person’s supra-rational self—things that a person wants for no “reason” other than the fact that he wants them—and are only subsequently related to by the rational self, which often attributes rational reasons to them.

[13]. In English, the words “will” and “desire” are often interchangeable. Here, they are used as translations of the Hebrew terms ratzon and oneg. Chassidic teaching includes many and various definitions of ratzon andoneg, and discusses many sub-categories and definitions within each of them. A full discussion is beyond the scope of this essay. For the sake of our discussion, we will suffice with the simple distinction between “will,” which is rational in the sense that a person can explain it, and “desire,” which defies all attempts to make sense of it. In other words, “will” and “desire” are both encompassing faculties in that they derive from a place in the soul that is not accessible by reason, and thus cannot be “internalized” by the person; “will,” however, is “close” enough to reason to be relatable to by the rational self as an “immediate encompasser.”

[14]. Man’s relationship with G-d also includes internal, immediately encompassing, and distantly encompassing elements. Torah study is the “internal” component of the relationship: the human mind assimilates the divine wisdom, making it part of its own composition. The mitzvot are the “encompassing” element: essentially supra-rational, man fulfills them in obedience to the divine will, “imposing” upon himself a behavior that is beyond his understanding. Nevertheless, virtually all mitzvot relate to the rational self: many can be rationally explained (though their rationality is not the “reason” for their observance); many are endowed with a symbolism that we can analyze and relate to rationally; and even the most logic-defying of mitzvot can be “understood” in terms of the logical necessity that man submit to the divine will. But then there are those elements of our relationship with G-d that belong to the realm of “distant encompassers”—elements that are so far removed from our rational selves that we cannot relate to them in any way, or even be aware of their existence. A case in point is the mitzvah of shikchah (“forgetting” a bundle of grain in the field for the poor—Deuteronomy 24:19), which can only be fulfilled against a person’s conscious will.

[15]. Hence the adage, “A man without a home is not a man” (Talmud, Yevamot 63a; and Tosafot there).

[16]. I Kings 5:11.

[17]. Ecclesiastes 7:23.

[18]. Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 19:3.

[19]. Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet 8:5.

[20]. Numbers 19:2.

[21]. Ibid., vv. 7-10; Talmud, Parah 4:4.

[22]. Genesis 25:30 (see Reshimot #12, p. 19); Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 178:1.

[23]. Numbers 19:3.

[24]. Ibid. v. 2.

[25]. Ibid. v. 4; Talmud, Parah 3:9 and 4:2.

[26]. Talmud, ibid. 4:1.

[27]. Likkutei Torah, Chukat 62b.

[28]. End of Amidah prayer; Talmud, Berachot 17a.

[29]. Reshimot #49.


Did you enjoy this? Get personalized content delivered to your own MLC profile page by joining the MLC community. It's free! Click here to find out more.

Notify of
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Joseph Eger
18 years ago

Death shows the universality of sin. Sin removes one from the camp. The sanctuary is in the camp.

Joseph Eger
18 years ago

Any death is representative of sin. So the contact with a dead body is a universal and constant reminder of sin. Sin also separates one from the camp, people, of G-d. The place for atonement is also in the camp. One, therefore is separated from the place of atonement. But G-d provided a place where one could be purified from sin outside the camp. One purified from sin can be joined once again to the camp and have access to the sanctuary.

The Meaningful Life Center