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The Calf’s Mother

The Calf’s Mother


Certainly the most esoteric chapter in the Torah is the law of the “red heifer” (parah adumah), commanded by G‑d to Moses (Numbers 19) as an antidote to the state of ritual impurity engendered by contact with death. The Midrash describes how King Solomon, “the wisest of men,” was baffled by it; and how Moses, the very vehicle of G‑d’s communication of His Torah to man, turned pale upon encountering the prospect of contamination by death, and found utterly incomprehensible the process of its rectification, crying out to G‑d: “Master of the universe! This is a purification?!”

It’s not just that the law of the red heifer cannot be logically explained; indeed, there exists an entire category of mitzvot, called chukim (“decrees”), whose defining criteria is that they transcend human understanding. What’s unique about the red heifer is that while the other chukim at least follow an internal logic of their own, the laws of the red heifer are fraught with paradox and inconsistency.1

Thus the laws of the red heifer are introduced by the Torah with the phrase “This is the chok of the Torah,” as if to say: this is the Torah’s ultimate chok, the mitzvah that most vividly demonstrates the supra-rationality of its Divine commandments.

The Mystery of Death

Indeed, explains the Lubavitcher Rebbe (in a talk delivered upon the conclusion of the sheloshim [30-day mourning period] for his wife), the most incomprehensible of human experiences—the phenomenon of death—can be sublimated only with the most incomprehensible of Divine mitzvot, the ashes and water of the red heifer.

Physically and biologically, death makes perfect sense (indeed, it is the phenomenon of life that defies explanation). Yet we all—even a man such as Moses—find death utterly incomprehensible, utterly devastating to our sense of reality. Despite all the “evidence” to the contrary, something deep inside us insists that life is the natural, axiomatic state of the human being, and that its cessation is a violation of the most basic law of existence.

For such, in truth, is the fundamental nature of man. True, the human body is physical flesh, and as such shares the dissolutive nature of all things physical. But it is animated by a soul that is a “spark of the Divine” and fortified with the eternity and indestructibility of its Source. In essence, human life is eternal.

Indeed, the first man was created to live forever. But then he violated the Divine will, thereby distancing himself from his Source and introducing the phenomenon of death into the human experience.

Our sages tell us that when the children of Israel stood at Sinai to receive the Torah from G‑d, they were restored to the original perfection in which man was first created. The Torah reinstated the original, unadulterated bond between G‑d and man, so that man was once more granted “freedom from the angel of death.”

But this time, too, the state of perfect connection to G‑d 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” by worshipping a calf of gold. The pestilence of death, introduced into the world by Adam’s sin and banished at Sinai, was reintroduced by the sin of the golden calf.

This explains the connection between the red heifer and the golden calf expressed in the Midrashic parable:

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 heifer atone for the deed of the calf” (Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 8).

In our post-Calf world, the imperfection in our relationship with G‑d finds its most noxious expression in the phenomenon of death. Contact with death thus spawns the most severe form of spiritual impurity, which can be mitigated only by the mother of the golden calf, the most supra-rational of the Divine decrees—the red heifer.

This was G‑d’s reply to Moses’ cry, “Master of the universe! This is a purification?!” “Moses,” G‑d said, “it is a chok, a decree that I have decreed.” Certain things are so overwhelming to My creations that they can be overcome only by submitting to an absolute command from an absolute authority. I have therefore commanded laws to instruct you what to do when your lives are touched by death. These are supra-rational, even irrational laws, for only such laws can facilitate your recovery. It is only by force of an utterly incomprehensible Divine decree that you can recover from such utter devastation to a living being’s self-definition.

Ultimately, however, there will come the day when the original bond between man and G‑d will once more be restored. This time, our prophets promise, it will be immune to disruption by sin, since G‑d will “slaughter the inclination for evil” in the heart of man and “remove the spirit of impurity from the earth,” with the result that “death shall cease forever.”


To cite but several of numerous examples:

a) The ashes of the red heifer remove the most severe of all impurities; yet those involved in its preparation become ritually impure themselves.

b) The red heifer must be completely red (as few as two hairs of a different color disqualify it), a color which has connotations of sin and deficiency in Torah and Torah law, yet it must also be “perfect, without blemish.”

c) 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). On the other hand, it must be slaughtered within sight of the Holy Temple, and its blood is sprinkled “toward the Holy of Holies”; according to one opinion, it must be slaughtered by the kohen gadol (high priest) himself, wearing the “white garments” reserved for the Yom Kippur service in the Holy of Holies.

d) The two components of the purifying mixture—ashes and spring water—represent two contradictory forces: fire, which represents the power of ascent; and water, which embodies the quality of “settling down” and saturation.

Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson; adapted by Yanki Tauber.
Originally published in Week in Review.
Republished with the permission of If you wish to republish this article in a periodical, book, or website, please email
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Feigele St Johns FL July 2, 2017

was it the chicken before the egg or the egg before the chicken!!! how can you tell if the Torah was created before the World? In order to create the Torah, shouldn't the World be there first??? How can someone assert such things! we all are going to the same process of life no matter our sins or mitzvoth. we are first created, then go through life events, then extinct. Reply

Rabbi Eliezer Zalmanov for July 3, 2017
in response to Feigele:

The Torah was written for all times and all situation, even one that is less than ideal, such as death. In other words, Torah is not limited to just a perfect world. Reply

Eliezer H Gibraltar June 30, 2017

"Indeed, the first man was created to live forever. " Then the question arises as to why the Torah, which was created before the world, deals with the laws of death? Anyone got a answer? Reply

Igor Bartolic Zagreb March 17, 2017

Ki Tisa Life is gift of HaShem, death is unity with HaShem. Divine Torah is connection to HaShem. Toda Chabad. Shabbat Shalom. HaShem Bless. Shalom. Reply

Anonymous us March 17, 2017

idols I first say that I am not a Jew, but I have inherited the Ten Commandments in my religious formation. I thought to place anything above God, or to forget that our creator is sustaining the world, was to practice idolatry. The golden calf has nothing to offer, is finite, and deadens the spirit, as does materialism, when things are thought to give life, status and worth to the owners. I see this magic at work in the golden promises of marketing and advertising. Although the Red Heifer sacrifice is not in my world, I can see how it takes something irrational and incomprehensible to break the spell of materialistic death. Something irrational like sacrifice. Reply

Feigele Boca Raton FL August 27, 2016

We are seasonal! We all are part of a season being here or there or anywhere. We must leave room for others to come and experience life as we did, good and bad. And if ‘death’ is part of our season, nothing can stop it. Our season may prolong with our children who will too go to the same process at the end of their season, and so on and so forth. But then, why consider it as “impure”, since it is part of the life G-d has created for us? I don’t understand the “Red Heifer”. We are not responsible for our death. We have not committed a sin since it’s out of our control. Death itself is a process of renewal. Reply

Anonymous Mesa July 14, 2016

The Calf's Mother I often wonder how should we keep clean in our spirit and soul, for wherever we go today there is filth. I have noticed how the influence of those in the wrong path, who are into idolatry, which is all over today, witchcraft, voodo, etc., is running our environment. There don't seem to be a safe place. How do we clean ourselves from death? Those who use power of the occult to take from us the blessings of the Holy Spirit of G-d? I read Torah, I pay good for the evil certain people have done to me. But, I fail my King when I feel anger. I cannot stop praying, these evil are trying to take me away from G-d's Presence. I will not give up! Reply

Anonymous DC June 30, 2012

Wow, woulden't it be wonderful if pyschology, and all the other zealots fleecing the hurting and vulnerable, understood this -- the only way to overcome some things in life is by obedience to the command of Gd which cannot be explained or understood!

Guess that takes the god status out of every practicing psychologist and psychiatrist, even the government!

I can't help but wonder if America has wasted billions of dollars in the war on terror only to find out that obedience to the Gd of heaven is the only solution! Then again, you don't make money or receive medals for obeying Gd; you only receive what man desires most in his inner being and that is life!

The truth is, if you obey Gd you are hated and are intentionally destroyed....what a paradox.....what brings life, brings death! Reply

john smith Fort lauderdale, FL June 30, 2012

not the human body i personally do not believe the human body was intended to live forever, just as animals, trees, fish all physically die.
The human soul can die from within, while the body remains a living organism walking the planet among other living creatures with souls intact.
Hopefully soon, there will be ashes of the red heifer available at the local Walmart for distribution. Reply

Gnarlodious   via June 29, 2012

There is only one... ...person who can explain what this means, and that person is called Moshiach. Reply

Prof. Jadira Fransisca Norton June 27, 2012

Psalm 50 (nun) Looking at this story of the calf bring me in a light of God that nobody can understand. In the presence of God, there is all that is in me.



Mindy Rutkovitz Concord, CA November 5, 2010

red heifer=purity every once in a while in the most obscure places you find in judaism an odd and yet relevant connection to the pagan world that came before it. the paradox exists within the need for the old divine mother to cleanse our deepest transgressions even while we are forbidden to acknowledge her as a source of divinity. it is as if in the midst of our most profound existential experiences our instinct returns to her despite the power of the taboo. the idea of death being an abomination to life is new to human culture and is a direct consequence of the male neurosis towards many things that are simply a part of nature, like the menses. all things female have been made to seem base even while a part of our psyche nags at us that they are actually sacred. men are obsessed with purity. this is why death seems at odds to life for them. women don't have this issue. they are comfortable with reality and therefore more sane. Reply

Dovid Kalamazoo, MI June 17, 2010

The Rebbe's Answer is Correct In so many words the mystery of the Red Heifer does circle around death. Those who know about the balance of nature know that it is unwise to believe in the completion of perfection. Killing anything, or causing pain, has repercussions, yet if we want to exist, we have to be willing to be imperfect. The Red Heifer is likened to the boundary between immersion in the darkness of the world and effusion into the "higher" light of G-d. It's a signal that the boundary is being crossed. So why do we choose to live? Is that super rational? Is It based upon fear? Do we continue to indulge in separation because we want to live or are afraid to die? Perhaps it is both. Reply

Paul M. Stein Oxnard, CA, U.S.A. via March 5, 2010

What the Red Heifer Is In the context of the Torah portion, it is similar to the red lollipop you get at the doctor's office. You got it only because you went to the doctor. Period. It feels good, but really does nothing.

The Torah portion states that if one comes in contact with a dead body one needed to contact the most learned people of the time to be taken care of. These folks, the "doctors" of their time, knew about disease and what to do with people to prevent the spread of truly horrible maladies among the greater population. They took care of their patients and, in the end, they got their red "lollipops".

All of the described rules, regulations, and indeed mythology associated with the red heifer did not come from the Torah but from people who knew way too little about medicine, psychology, and human nature.

The red heifer was necessary in biblical times to preserve the Jewish people. Now, people know about medicine and go to the doctor. So, now a red heifer is just a cute baby cow. Reply

sue Kanata, ON March 4, 2010

Someone wrote: "It still seems uncear - what relationship did the red heifer have with the golden calf / the institution of death? How does it resolve deaths questions, deaths pains?

I was also questioning- it comes from too ancient a world to understand, but if you have been close to a death, there can be some types of matter that "taint" you physically and emotinally. Nowadays, there is Ativan for Mourning, a vitamin that helps stop your body from dying or becoming paralyzed with the death of ones' beloved.
Unless the red heifer represented a factor that calmed the land in a healing way, it was probably an attempt to dissuade primitive people from further sacrificial violence, or potentially, the ash provided a type of medicine from clover, grass, etc.
I suppose it is an interesting symbol to look for when meditating on historic events? Reply

Menachem Posner for September 13, 2009

To Paulo Sergio Freire: Rabbi Chaim ben Attar (Ohr Hachayim, ad loc.) points out that the redness of the heifer, as well of some of its other characteristics, all point out to severity and judgment--as opposed to kindness or mercy. Reply

Paulo Sergio Freire rio de janeiro, rio de janeiro September 12, 2009

red reifer Why was the reifer red? It has any sense or reason? red is related to sin? Reply

Tzvi Freeman Thornhill, Ontario March 15, 2009

For Felicitas The question is good. But it applies equally to Adam and Chava in the Garden of Eden. How is it that they sinned?

If, however, G_d would remove the evil inclination from man, then what would be the point of giving them a Torah? This itself was the argument Moses used against the angels, who desired the Torah for themselves: Since they do not have an evil inclination, what relevance does the Torah have to them? Reply

Susan Zimmerman Toronto, ON, Canada March 13, 2009

Choose life I am not learned. But you know the Parsha that includes setting before us life and death? We choose life.

Just a few days ago I realized that even on our death bed we are asked to "choose life." I've been pondering this: That in the last moment of physical life (that is, the moment of death) we are still invited to choose life. Isn't this amazing? It's like a continuum without a discontinuity. Although it seems like death closes all, even death is life - we are invited to choose life.

So the golden calf is death, spiritual death as well as physical...and somehow the red heifer is life, spiritual life as well as physical. And no matter where we are in our journey...even the moment of death we say the Sh'ma; we choose Torah; we affirm our identity; we open ourselves for haShem.

I can't explain this any better - Is the intimate paradoxical linkage of death with life like the intimate paradoxical linkage of the golden calf with the red heifer?

A paradox. Reply

Felicitas Kugel Jerusalem, Judea March 13, 2009

The Calf's Mother Please explain:
Our Sages tell us that when the Children of Israel stood at Sinai to receive the Torah from G-d, they were restored to the original perfection in which man was first created. The Torah reinstated the original, unadulterated bond between G-d and man, so that man was once more granted "freedom from the Angel of Death."

If Israel was restored to the original perfection at Sinai, why did Hashem not remove also the disposition of "evil inclination" leading man into sin? Moreover, why giving the Torah at all if it were not for all the laws referring directly to this evil inclination which Hashem anticipated? Reply

David Leitman Queens, NY July 3, 2008

perplexed by death I once noticed that death is not just specific to man but ubiquitous to all the universe, even stars die. This caused me to be perplexed by the phrase in the Torah: For in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die. Has the disobedience of man caused death to the entire Universe and is the whole Universe now subject to death because of the sins of primoridal man against haShem. I believe that the primordial sin gave mankind the inherent disposition to spy on himself and gave him the insight to be an autonomous moral author. This necessarily put him at odds with haShem because he no longer needed to rely on Him, now possessing his own firsthand sense of right and wrong. I believe that this is what haShem meant when he said: You shall surely die. HaKadosh Baruch Hu is equating moral autonomy with death. Reply

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