Parashas Chuqas

When looking at the mitzvah of tzitzis for parashas Shelach (Toras Aish: Vol. 1, No. 4, Mesukim MiDevash) we discussed at the color of tekheiles. This week’s parashah opens at the opposite end of the spectrum, the red heifer. As a preface, here is a very brief review of the relevant concepts.

We noticed that man feels torn between two poles: his physical desires, and his spiritual ones. But in order to feel pulled, the identity, the “I” that is feeling, must be a third entity that the two are actually pulling upon. This entity is active, a creator “in the image of G-d”, self-aware and the seat of free will. The physical and spiritual components are mere creatures of their respective realms, they feel like helpless subjects to the forces of their respective universes.

R. SR Hirsch found this concept key to understanding a number of the symbols that Hashem uses to communicate to man. In particular, the Torah has only three words for colors: adom, red; yaroq, green-yellow; and tekheiles, blue. (All other color words refer to particular colored objects. For example, “argaman” doesn’t mean “purple” it means “purple wool”.) These primary colors represent those same three pieces of the human condition. In our discussion of tzitzis we focused on blue. Tekheiles is the color of the sky. It is the end of the spectrum, and hints at the unseen beyond. Therefor it is the color of the Beis Hamiqdash and describes the special relationship between G-d and Israel. Tekheiles is used as a tool to inculcate within us the role of the spiritual man.

The parah adumah, the Red Heifer, brings us to the meaning of red. “Adom” is from “adamah“, earth. It is the closest to the energy that gets absorbed by matter. Therefor, red represents the physical man and the universe he lives in. With this background, we’ll try to under stand some elements of the mitzvah of Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer.


What does it mean to be tamei or tahor? When the Torah discusses the subject, it uses the avoidance of tum’ah as a goal in itself, not as something that needs further justification. The explanation Hashem gives us for certain animals being non-kosher is merely “tamei hu lachem – it is tamei to you.” (Vayikra 11:4) Elsewhere, we find tahor used to mean pure; for example, pure gold is repeatedly called “zahav tahor.” (e.g. Shemos 25:31) But what is it that is pure, and from what kind of adulteration is it pure?

The Ramchal defines the personal attribute called taharah:

Taharah is the correction of the heart and thoughts… Its essence is that man shouldn’t leave room for the inclination in his actions. Rather all his actions should be on the side of wisdom and awe [for the Almighty], and not on the side of sin and desire. This is even in those things which are of the body and physical.

- Mesilas Yesharim Ch. 16

To the Ramchal, taharah is purity of the “heart and thoughts”. The tahor man has “no room for the physical.” It is the purity of the deciding mind from the physical creature.

To cast the words of the Ramchal into the terms we discussed in the introduction, taharah and tum’ah focus on the relationship between the physical and the mind. Taharah is the purity of the mind from physical prejudices. Tum’ah is its adulteration, so that the decision making process can not be freed of the physical urges.

This is mussar’s description of a personality trait called “taharah.” The halakhah‘s concept seems to derive directly from it. Rav SR Hirsch describes the tum’ah of a dead body:

A dead human body tends to bring home to one’s mind a fact which is able to give support to that pernicious misconception which is called tum’ah. For, in fact, there lies before us actual evidence that Man must — willy-nilly — submit to the power of physical forces. That in this corpse that lies before us, it is not the real human being, that the real human being, the actual Man, which the powers of physical force can not touch, had departed from here before the body — merely its earthly envelope — could fall under the withering law of earthly Nature; more, that as long as the real Man, with his free-willed self-determining G-dly nature was present in the body, the body itself was freed from forced obedience to the purely physical demands, and was elevated into the sphere of moral freedom in all its powers of action and also of enjoyment, when the free-willed ruling of the higher part of Man decided to achieve the moral mission of his life;

- Commentary on Lev. 11:47

R. SR Hirsch portrays the tamei object as one that causes the illusion that man is nothing more than a physical object, an animal, a helpless subject to physical forces and physical desires. In reality,

death only begins with death, but that in life, thinking striving and accomplishing Man can master, rule, and use even his own sensuous body with all its all its innate forces, urges, and powers, with G-d-like free self-decision, within the limits of, and for accomplishment of, the duties set by the laws of morality; …

“Thinking striving and accomplishing Man,” the conscious man, should use the “sensuous body with all its innate forces, urges, and powers,” the physical man, as a tool for doing good. The object which halachah calls tamei is that thing which will cause mussar’s tum’ah to awaken itself within the mind. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The mind that is prejudiced by physical needs and urges can not fully choose its own destiny.

Since the tamei is that which reinforces the idea that man is a being of mere physicality, tum’ah is only associated with the dead bodies of animals “whose body-formation is similar to that of Man, primarily the larger mammals.” The shemonah sheratzim, the only smaller animals that are tamei, are vertebrates “that live in the vicinity of human beings,” the weasel, mouse, mole, etc… All these are animals we see about us, living much as we do. The animals that closer resemble man have stricter rules of tum’ah. Similarly, menstruation and sexual emissions, which also cause tum’ah are things that happen to man, unwittingly, “willy-nilly submitting to the power of physical forces.”

In contrast, to become pure we immerse in a miqvah. The root of the word “miqvah” is ambiguous. The straight-forward definition would be “a gathering of water,” which a miqvah is in a very literal sense. But the word can also be read “source of hope.” Perhaps this is an allusion to the idea that it provides us with the faith that we are not mere creatures of the laws of biology, but can rise above those laws to master our own fate.


The sprinkling waters of the Parah Adumah consists of five ingredients: the red cow, a spring of hyssop, a piece of cedar wood, red wool, and water.

The parah is a work animal. However, to be usable for the mitzvah, this cow must never have been harnessed. It represents the physical man, which, in the state of tum’ah, is not controlled by the creative mind. For this reason, the parah must be pure red – the color of unadulterated physicality.

After the cow is burnt is referred to by a new noun – “sereifah“, a burnt thing. The first step to becoming tahor is destroying the notion that man is and ought to be an uncontrollable animal.

To this is added the hyssop, the cedar and the scarlet wool. The three are tied together by the wool to make a bundle. The hyssop is of the smallest plants native to Israel, it grows in the cracks of neglected walls. The cedar is among the tallest and proudest. This contrast is reduced to ash, showing the meaninglessness of ego and conceit, the flaws that conscious, self-aware beings are prone to.

The wool is called “tola’as shani”. “Shani” is from “shanah”, changed. The focus is on the fact that it is no longer what it was. That which was once white, a clean slate, is now red, overrun by physicality. These three are added to the “s’reifas haparah” – the entity that is mostly destroyed, but still retains some of the “parah”-ness.

This bundle is burnt to show the second step toward taharah. After the physical man is brought into control, we rid the mind of the effects, the flaws, caused by this contact.

The last ingredient is “mayim chayim”, living or “raw” water. Similar to the waters of the mikvah, the Parah Adumah water must be collected from nature. Water, the archetypal fluid, demonstrates change. By being “raw” the water is connected to the waters of creation, described in Bereishis 1:2-3.

This is the last step to reach taharah. Now that we have eradicated the error that man is a creature, a victim of physical forces, and the secondary effects of that error on the mind, we must be reborn (mayim), hopeful (mikvah) and committed to a new future.

© 1995 The AishDas Society