Red Cow, Red Blood, Red Dye: Staring Death & Life in the Face

Red Cow, Red Blood, Red Dye:
Staring Death & Life in the Face

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Phyllis Berman*

The Torah-portion Hukkat (Num. 19 through 21) calls our attention to what looks at first like paradox.

Literally "looks," for the paradoxes appear before the eyes.

First we are told that in order to restore to the community those who have become tamei by contact with death, a red heifer is slaughtered and burned in red fire with red wood and red dye in a great cloud of red smoke for / before the eyes of the priest (Num. 19: 5).

What is "tumah?" Not impurity, as it is usually translated, but a spiritual state of laser-beam inward focus (quite different from experiencing holiness in community). Tumah might well result from giving birth, touching death, menstruating, having sex. For people so touched to move back into community, they had to go through one or another ritual. For death-contact, the red cow was the relevant ritual.

The burning cow becomes a spectacle, literally, of redness for the priest to stare at hard. Look hard at all this red, then quickly shut your eyes: You will see a flash of green, a field of green. Green grass, green growth, green Tree of Life, green Garden.

If you look intently upon the color of death -- and then, but not till then, you release yourself from that gaze by blinking -- you will live.

Then the ashes of the burnt heifer are mixed with water, to sprinkle over anyone who has touched the dead body of any human being. This sprinkling takes away the tumah of that touch, and it must be done before such a person can enter the Temple area - the site of communal holiness.

But the priest who kills the heifer and the one who burns her body and even the one who gathers up her ashes are all made tamei by the process. They must be ritually released from their narrow focus.

Gazing on death opens up the spirit from its laser-beam focus on death, but the process of this opening itself narrows the focus of the practitioner. Is this a paradox? Only if we are puzzled by the flow of life/death/ life. Today many physicians and psychotherapists who heal the wounded may themselves take on the woundedness; would that we shaped a ritual to heal these healers!

Later in the portion (Num. 20: 8), when the people are athirst God tells Moses to speak to a rock so that, for/ before the eyes of the people, it will turn to water. If they stare hard at hardness, dryness, deadliness, unchangeableness, it will turn to flow, to giving life.

And finally (Num. 21: 4-9) , God tells Moses to cure the people of a plague of fiery snakes. How? By raising before them a nahash n'hoshet for them to stare at. What does this Hebrew phrase mean? According to the dictionary, a brass or copper serpent. But if we listen to the sound of the words, we might hear "a copper copperhead," "a serpenty serpent, a "super-serpent." (Everett Fox's brilliant translation of the Torah says, "copper viper.")

What cures us from serpents? The cure is a serpent that we call forth for ourselves , even more deeply "serpenty" in its essence than the deadly living snakes.

And what do you do with these super-serpents? Look hard into their faces. Stare hard at death, the face of fear, and you will be freed to life.

Stare hard at death -- and blink. Shut your eyes tight. Stare, and stop staring. Once you have seen clearly, open your eyes anew by first closing them for just an instant. -- Open them! -- to a different possibility. Then the colors of life will appear.

And for us, we who still shudder from our brush with death in Auschwitz, our brush with death in the H-Bomb doomsday system, our continuing brush with death in the scorching of the earth we are bringing on ourselves, our brushes with death in the cancers of our friends and lovers, what does this mean?

For us who choke on the dryness of our lives, us who fear the burning serpents that writhe their way into our very souls, what does this mean?

Stare these dangers in the face before we blink. Look -- and do not be addicted to the looking. Without looking, no gift of life. But to be mesmerized by the looking is also to reject the gift of life.

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