Chukkat: The Enigmas of Life and Death

On the coming Sabbath, Parashah Chukkat from the Book of Numbers (BaMidbar) will be read. To me, this strange parashah suggests that we exist amidst two realities. One on whose rules we may have a measure of influence, and one whose rules we must accept and obey without question. The duality of life and death prevail in ParashahChukkat and are interpreted here in these details from my book Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).

Chukkat: The Enigmas of Life and Death

Embodying this duality is the red heifer, known in Hebrew as ‘parah adumah temimah’. This special creature must be a young animal without imperfections that has not been yoked for labor. In an esoteric purification ritual, cedar wood and fragrant hyssop are wrapped in crimson yarn (shown below the figure) and burnt with her sacrifice. The resulting ashes are added to pure stream water. A priest, under the supervision of the High Priest, then dips three bundled stalks of hyssop into the mixture and sprinkles it over a person who has become impure through contact with a corpse. Since the time span for impurity is seven days, this is performed on the third and seventh day during that period, illustrated by the presence of an ancient sundial. The small bowl and towel next to the heifer address a modern corollary to this ritual; conservative and Orthodox Jews wash their hands upon return from a cemetery visit. Rabbi Jill Hammer (http: // suggests that the ashes of the red heifer represent G-d, Who causes the living to die and restores the dead to life. She further states that the heifer (who is the only mandatory female animal in all ritual sacrifices) is a symbol of the Shekhinah or the Divine Feminine. This idea inspired the figure of Shekhinah above the red heifer. The small image of the golden calf within the heifer was suggested by Rashi, the medieval French rabbi and Torah commentator, who viewed the commandment concerning red heifer as atonement for the sin of the golden calf simply because it is a ‘chok‘, one of four commandments that require unconditional obedience.

In his commentary to BaMidbar, Ch. 19, he discusses the other three ‘chok’ commandments: the levirate laws (requiring a man to marry the widow of his childless brother (Deut. 25:5-10), the prohibition of ‘sha’atnez’ (the wearing of clothing made of wool and linen (Deut. 22:11), so as to prevent profaning those materials used in the Tabernacle and clothing for the priestly caste). The final ‘chok’ commands sending a goat into the wilderness to Azazel (Lev. 16).

The birth of a red heifer is quite rare, intended by G-d to occur only in a generation that has great need of its properties. Moses prepared the first one in the desert and eight others were prepared during the Temple period. It is said that the tenth will appear to herald the coming of the Messiah. One other thought for this week’s parashah: Only half of the man at the upper left is shown in color. He is holding a half-eaten fig that recalls the banishment from the Garden of Eden and the transition from immortality to mortality that may provoke our persistent quest for ritual purity.

The full illustrations and their complex symbolism  are explained in greater detail on page 170-172 of the AfterImages section of Between Heaven & Earth: An Illuminated Torah Commentary (Pomegranate, 2009).

The book is distributed internationally and may be purchased directly from Pomegranate, the publisher by calling: 1-800-227-1428 (US), {+44} 0 1926 430111(UK) or visiting


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: