This week’s Torah portion discusses one of the most bizarre and indecipherable rituals in the Torah: parah aduma, which is the ritual of purifying a person who has come into contact with a dead body. During the ritual of parah aduma, the Kohen slaughters a red cow that has never born a yoke and then burns the carcass along with cedar, hyssop and a crimson substance until it has been reduced to ashes. The ashes are then mixed with water and sprinkled on the person who has come in contact with death, thus rendering him pure.
This strange ritual, which in some aspects seems almost pagan, can be interpreted and understood metaphorically as a cathartic, therapeutic process, one meant to help a mourner overcome grief. Each physical step in the parah aduma ritual also works as a symbol that taps into the subconscious, intangible experience of death.
To begin the ritual, the first requirement is the red cow.
The living red cow embodies an abstraction: literally and symbolically. The cow stands in for the life force vanquished; it represents vitality, procreation and energy, as does its red color, a color associated with blood, the medium of life. Because the cow has never born a yoke, its death is untimely — it has not yet contributed to or affected the world. The parallel for a person would be a death that occurs without fulfilling one’s goals and or realizing one’s potential.
The substances burned with the cow also have symbolic meaning. In biblical times, cedar and hyssop stood for the two poles of the social gamut: the wealthiest and the poorest, the mightiest and the weakest. Turning all these elements to ashes suggests that no one can escape death. The burning of cedar and hyssop together with the parah aduma symbolizes utter destruction, the extermination of the entire gamut of existence. The cedar and hyssop also suggest that death is both a physical and a social phenomenon. This message assists the mourner in coming to terms with grief, indicating that along with the physical loss, there has been a loss of social bonds, of human connection. The symbolism of the parah aduma ritual reflects the complexity of the mourner’s feelings of loss. Through the ritual, the mourner’s need to grieve is acknowledged.
Grief can breed devastating results when not addressed appropriately. A mourner might question the purpose of his life and the worthiness of his actions; he can slip into the mode of thinking typified in phrases such as "My life is meaningless" and "I am nothing."
From there the road can be very short to suicidal tendencies and even to violent criminal acts against others, because the logical correlative to "I am nothing" is "you are nothing." Once life is meaningless, whatever damage a person causes to others is insignificant. In fact, such injury to others can, sadly, serve a cathartic purpose; as a person subjects another to anger and violence, he renders the other person as helpless and ineffective as he feels himself.
This negative disposition that results from death and loss is the reason for the mourner’s impurity for seven days. The impurity is a spiritual one that calls the mourner’s attention to the dangers, the precariousness, of his situation. But, simultaneously, the condition of impurity and separation allows the mourner an opportunity to express and experience his emotions and to heal.
On the third day of this healing process, the mourner is brought to the priest, and he returns on the seventh day for a second session. In the Torah’s description of these meetings between mourner and priest, a surprising but subtle linguistic shift occurs. The remainder of the red cow, which was initially referred to as "ashes" (efer in Hebrew), is now referred to as dust (afar in Hebrew). While only one letter has changed in the text, the symbolic meaning of the two words is completely different. The word "afar" in reference to death, transports us directly to the verse: "for you are dust and to dust you shall return." The word dust reminds the mourner that life is ephemeral and that death is inevitable. It also reminds him of the cycle of life: in the words of Rabbi Akiva, "Those living will die, those who were not born yet will be born."
Finally, the parah aduma ritual emphasizes and expands on this cyclical notion in a way clearly evident to ancient Israelites who lived in an agrarian society. While nothing can grow in ashes, dust can definitely serve as a fertile soil. A seed, buried in the dust, will resurrect as a plant.
Similarly, the mourner is encouraged to summon all his energy and to come back to life with energy and vitality. This concept is symbolized by the last step in the process, the pouring of fresh, living water, mayim hayyim, on the parah aduma’s dust. The positive power of life, contained in the water, will overcome the destructive power of death. Even though the loss that comes with a death will not be forgotten, life will be resumed with an emphasis on the positive experiences of the past and on the abundance and richness of the life we have lived and will live.
Haim Ovadia, rabbi of Kahal Joseph Congregation, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.