One of the most difficult to understand commandments is the Torah decree about the Red Cow (Numbers 19:1-22).  An unblemished red cow has to be slaughtered and completely burned, mixed with several other natural additives.  Its ashes are then preserved for use as a ritual purifier.  Anybody who participates in the preparation process or touches the ashes is contaminated and needs to wash and wait until the evening to purify.  However, people (and objects) that have been contaminated by touching a human corpse shall be sprinkled upon with a water solution of these ashes and become pure.  The ashes, which are used to purify contaminated people, also contaminate the pure person who handles them. Can the same material purify the contaminated and contaminate the pure?  Also, what is the unique quality of an unblemished red cow?

We are obligated to study Torah and understand it and its commandments as thoroughly as we can, but this commandment is not easy to understand.  Several Torah commentators indicate that this decree reminds us that understanding a mitzvah is not a condition for its observance.

In my opinion, this commandment also illustrates the spiritual power of religious rituals.  It is not the physical content of the ash mixture that gives it its power to purify.  In essence, the material is nothing more than the residue of a dead cow.  Indeed, it is the dedicated ritual of preparation that makes it a spiritual purifier.  First of all, an unblemished red cow is required because it takes a special effort to locate one.  We do not know how rare were they in ancient times, but if cows these days are any indication -- perfectly red cows are hard to find.  Then, after finding the unblemished red cow, the unique preparation follows, as described in the Torah.  A ritual that demands special efforts and difficult preparations by the community and its leaders is a ritual worthy of converting a contaminating material into a designated spiritual purifier, with G-d's blessing.

                                                Judah Ari-Gur

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