It is a bizarre and arcane ritual. The priests slaughter and burn a completely red cow. They combine the ashes with water. When a person is contaminated with impurity though contact with the dead, the priests sprinkle this water upon them, and the impurity is removed. Yet those involved with the preparation of this water become impure.
This peculiar commandment is not merely an obscure and irrelevant detail of the Torah. In a way, it represents the essence of the Torah itself and reveals deep secrets about the ultimate redemption and the coming of Messiah.
As the month of Nisan approaches, in our synagogues we read several special passages that are important for the season. One of these readings is the passage regarding the red heifer. In Hebrew, this offering is called the parah adumah, meaning “red cow” or “red heifer.” The biblical passage is referred to as Parashat Parah, and the Sabbath on which it is read is called Shabbat Parah.
This passage draws to our attention that the Messiah himself is near and the ultimate redemption of Israel and the world. Here are eight ways in which the red cow relates to the ultimate Messianic redemption.
1. The Tenth Red Heifer
The Mishnah teaches that only nine red heifers have been prepared in history:
Moses prepared the first [red heifer]. Ezra prepared the second… the sages say that there were seven more from Ezra onward. Who prepared them? Shimon the Righteous and Yochanan the High Priest prepared two each. Eliehoeinai ben Hakof, Chanamel Hamitzri, and Yishmael ben Piavi prepared one each. (m.Parah 3:5)
Rambam comments with the remarkable statement that Messiah himself will prepare the tenth red heifer:
Nine red heifers were prepared in keeping with this commandment until the destruction of the Second Temple. Moses our Teacher prepared the first one. Ezra prepared the second. There were seven between Ezra and the destruction of the Temple. The tenth will be prepared by King Messiah; may he be revealed soon! Amen, let it be his will! (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Parah Adumah 3:4)
It is strange and uncharacteristic for the Rambam to suddenly break into prayers for Messiah to come in the middle of a halachic manual. The fact that he does so demonstrates the important connection between this commandment and the Messiah. It highlights the anticipation that we should feel as we study this passage. (See also Rabbenu Bachya on Numbers 19:2.)
2. The Prophetic Cleansing
The red heifer provides cleansing from impurity through the sprinkling of water. The Prophet Ezekiel employed this imagery when speaking of the messianic redemption. In the Haftarah that we read along with Parashat Parah, the prophet states:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. (Ezekiel 36:25)
This is a part of the process that Ezekiel refers to as the sanctification of God’s name, when he redeems Israel from exile through Messiah. The red heifer fills us with longing for this spiritual cleansing and the sanctification of God’s name.
3. Preparation for Redemption
We read Parashat Parah prior to Passover because it reminds us of the necessity to purify from impurity to make the Passover pilgrimage and eat of the Passover lamb. Passover itself is a celebration—even a re-enactment—of redemption, so in this sense it is preparation for redemption itself.
4. Restoration from Death
The purpose of the red heifer is to remove the impurity caused by contact with the dead. In this way, removal of the effects of death hints at the future when the dead will be raised as a part of the whole messianic redemption. The apostles teach us that the resurrection of Yeshua is proof and a foretaste of the reality of bodily resurrection that we all will one day experience.
The red heifer’s cleansing is also required to decontaminate Jews who have been outside the land of Israel. In this way, the red heifer also symbolizes the ingathering of the exiles.
6. The revealing of mysteries
The passage of the red heifer is introduced by saying, “This is the statute of the Torah” (Numbers 19:2). The Hebrew word for statute—chok—implies a commandment beyond human reason. The red heifer is thus the most mysterious of all commandments. When Messiah comes, mysteries will be revealed, as he teaches us the inner secrets of the Torah. Thus, the red heifer alludes to the future time when the knowledge of God will be revealed to us.
7. Rectification from sin
The sages teach that the commandment of the red heifer is given as a rectification of the spiritual deficiency brought about by the sin of worshiping the golden calf. As such, it represents the restoration of all spiritual deficiencies and the forgiveness of even the most severe sins. This forgiveness is a promise of the redemption.
8. Atonement and the tzaddik
The sages in the Gemara asked, “Why is the passage about the death of Miriam juxtaposed to the passage about the red heifer? This teaches us that just as the red heifer brings atonement, the death of the righteous also bring atonement.”
Atonement—kapparah—closes the distance between God’s presence and us. We long for the day when God’s presence is restored to earth in a complete way by the power of Yeshua the Messiah.