Making Oneself Unclean: The Ashes Of The Red Heifer

The Torah portion last week discussed the ashes of the Red Heifer.  The ashes were required to cleanse the temple area, the altar, the priests, and the people.  The text says that whoever was involved with burning the red heifer, collecting the ashes, and using them to cleanse was rendered unclean until evening.  It stipulates that a ritually clean person who collected the ashes would be rendered unclean until evening.  The Torah does not say “Why” it had to be a red heifer, or “why” a person was rendered unclean, it just says that the person who used them, collected them, etc, would be rendered unclean until evening.

First, its important to note that being unclean is a ceremonial designation, and that person was ritually impure.  The person had not sinned, they just were unclean for ritual purposes and could not make a sacrifice because they could not enter the temple until they were pronounced clean.

Second, and more significant is that fact that doing this made the person unclean. The important thing to me is that the person who became unclean did so willingly.  A clean person made himself unclean by gathering the ashes.  The Kohain, or priest, made himself unclean by sacrificing the red Heifer. In each case, the person sacrificed his own cleanness for the sake of others.

The Torah teaches that people who come in contact with a dead body makes themselves unclean.  If someone is helping prepare a body for burial, it’s a mitzvah, but they made themselves unclean in the process.  It’s an act of love to do it.   If they are sprinkled with the ashes of the Red Heifer, immerse themselves in water, and wait until sundown, they will be clean again.  Ashes, water, and time are required.  They are unclean until evening, because at sunset the new day begins.

The text doesn’t say “why a red heifer.”  Its a commandment and that’s it.  God doesn’t always say why.  The real question coming out of the passage is “For what?”  For what or for whom is a person willing to make himself unclean?  Each person in the process of producing the ashes of the red heifer did so for the benefit of Israel.  It made ritual cleanness possible for the community.   A person who helps prepare a dead body is doing so for the sake of mourners needing their loved one buried.

I am a kohain.  I am not allowed to make myself unclean by contact with a dead body except for a close relative.  I am not even permitted to go to a funeral or a cemetery unless it’s for a close relative, or for me, it would be a sin.  If I perform a funeral, I am making myself unclean.

I meet many people who are concerned about their personal purity.  Some of them make much of the idea of finding the original ashes of the red heifer.  Ultra Orthodox Jews in Israel are using genetic science to produce a perfectly red heifer, so once again the Temple can be rebuilt and the ashes of the red heifer can cleanse the sanctuary.  The real question for me, is for what and for whom am I willing to make myself unclean?  Afterwards I can go to the Mikvah and immerse myself, and have a sense of cleanness restored after sunset, but the act of making myself unclean is a sacrificial one.  We are faced with all kinds of opportunities to help people, and some of them get us dirty or contaminated, but we become the instrument of blessing to others.  On whose behalf am I willing to make myself unclean?  It begs the question:  Is my life a sacrificial one?


7 thoughts on “Making Oneself Unclean: The Ashes Of The Red Heifer

  1. Thank you Michael for this very interesting and inspirational teaching regarding the Red Heifer. We each can choose to make sacrifices to HaShem for others. Each being willing to become unclean to spiritually help others to be clean again in the eyes of
    G-d. To make the mitzvah and sacrifice of knowingly becoming unclean for those in our midst with needs, and then to go through a spiritual cleansing is at the height of serving G-d and authentically communing with G-d and our people.

  2. So, even though you are a Rabbi, and performing funerals is a normal part of a Rabbi’s job, since you are a Cohen, doing a funeral would make you unclean? It makes sense, but I just never thought about it that way. What about a memorial service not conducted in the cemetery?

    Does it then follow that if I requested that you not perform my funeral it would be doing a mitzvah for you?


    • Actually, its my call, and in the course of serving people, I make the choice to help people by performing funerals. Memorial services are better for me, but I go with what the family would like. I am willing to make myself unclean for this mitzvah. The siddur says, escorting the dead is a special mitzvah.

      All I could say was that your passing would sadden me beyond words.


      • Thank you for the kind words. As to my passing, there is no reason to think it is imminent, but in G-d’s time it will happen. I was just hypothesizing.


  3. Good post! I did a cursory study on all the necessary stringencies and avoidances placed upon a kohain in the Bible and especially in our modern world.. and well, lets just say that I am glad that I am not a kohain!

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