This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid. And you shall give it to Eleazar the kohen, and he shall take it outside the camp and slaughter it in his presence. Eleazar the kohen shall take from its blood with his finger and sprinkle it toward the front of the Tent of Meeting seven times. The cow shall then be burned in his presence; its hide, its flesh, its blood, with its dung he shall burn it. The kohen shall take a piece of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson wool, and cast them into the burning of the cow. (Numbers 19:2-6)

These verses describe part of the purification process for an individual or object which became impure through contact with a dead person. A red heifer was sacrificed and burned together with cedar wood, hyssop and crimson wool. Its ashes, mixed with water from a spring, were sprinkled upon those who had become defiled. The paradox is that although this purified them, it made impure all those who were involved in its preparation. This is one of the reasons this ritual is called a chukah (ordinance)–a law which we are not able to understand.

Shrouded in mystery, the painting captures some of the perplexities of this ordinance. It portrays the heifer, which has a larger than life presence, as it begins a process that will transform it into an elixir for healing. The red heifer, a perfectly red, free cow that was never put to the yoke, is sacrificed and its blood repeatedly sprinkled toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The strong reds emphasize the physical nature of this ritual as the heifer goes up in red hot smoke, while its flesh is reduced to ashes. Cast into the flames of the burning cow is cedar wood, symbol of ego, hyssop, a symbol of humility, with red crimson wool, signifying how all these elements become nullified for a higher good. The grey ashes are then mixed with spring water, here symbolized by white, as these two contradictory forces of fire and water are transformed into an antidote that bestows purification.

It is also interesting that the red heifer is considered part of the rectification for the sin of the Golden Calf. In the case of the golden calf, the gold was thrown in the fire and a calf emerged out of the flames bringing detrimental consequences, while here the ashes of the perfect red cow become an agent for healing and atonement.