Friday, July 3, 2009

Defeating Necrophobia through a Dead Cow

Early in my Rhode Island years, I helped the chevra kadisha move the body of a young man who had passed away.

I’ve always had a death-phobia, but that was a particularly rattling experience for me; it reminded me that we don’t have 100% certainty about what occurs when we die. We have faith, but even the Torah’s pesukim don’t fully address our questions about what befalls both body and soul.

Of course, some people are congenitally immune to those fears, or have been exposed to death so often that they are desensitized, but many people share my reaction of a dozen years ago – death is fundamentally frightening. This is one of the reasons why the world has been so caught up in the recent death of the big ‘80s stars, first Farrah Fawcett and then Michael Jackson – the death of these people who were so vital and so much a part of public life - so recently a part of public life - is a scary reminder of our most basic questions about the invisible future.

In the Parah Adumah, though, I see a message for dealing with our death-induced fear.

The Parah Adumah (red heifer) is used in a ritual performed to purify people from contact with death. As we described it in this morning’s parshah, a red cow is killed, and then the carcass is incinerated. A small amount of the ash is then placed into specially prepared water, and that water is sprinkled on a person who is impure. This didn’t go on all the time, of course; the ash of the parah adumah lasts for generations, so that only nine parot adumot have been used in history.

This parah adumah is actually described twice in the Torah, in separate contexts:

• First: After the Jews crossed through Yam Suf, they traveled for three days without fresh water. Finally, they arrived at an oasis called Marah, only to find that the water was not potable. Frightened by their physical suffering they complained to Moshe, and Gd showed Moshe how to treat the water to make it sweet. Then, we are told, the Jews were taught חק ומשפט, which Rashi explains includes parah adumah, and so the parah adumah is eternally linked to the water of Marah.

• Second, this week, we learn the specific laws of the parah adumah, and here the sages link the parah adumah with the Cheit haEigel. When Moshe disappeared atop Har Sinai for nearly six weeks, the people feared that they had lost their Divine protection and they created an Eigel, a calf, as a substitute, treating it as a quasi-god. We use a cow for purification to counter that idolatrous calf.

In both of those cases, the message is that the Jews experienced fear of physical or spiritual death, and Gd was there for them – and their message is the message of the Parah Adumah as well.

Marah and the Eigel provide the two basic components of the Parah Adumah ritual: We take the ashes of a cow, reminiscent of the Eigel at Sinai, and we introduce them into water, reminiscent of the water at Marah. We then sprinkle them on the person who has been close to death to remind her that we have been close to physical and spiritual death in the past, as a nation, and Gd has saved us.

Indeed, the whole idea of using a dead cow to purify someone from death is inherently paradoxical, but perhaps that’s part of the message – that even when we are brought face-to-face with death, we can conquer this fear because Gd will be there for us.

Just as Gd told Yitzchak, “Don’t be afraid – I was with your ancestors, and I will be there for you as well”;

Just as Gd told Yaakov, “Don’t be afraid – I was with your ancestors, and I will be there for you as well”;

So Gd tells every one of us, in our moment of greatest despair and fear, “Don’t be afraid – I was with your ancestors, and I will be there for you as well.”

The Torah underscores this message by connecting it with Miriam, placing it right before her demise, because she faced down death with trust in Gd.

Miriam was all of six years old, apprentice to her mother as a midwife, when the Egyptian Pharaoh ordered the two of them to kill all of the Jewish baby boys. She and her mother overrode any fear of man, defied Pharaoh and saved the babies. And so the conclusion of Miriam’s story follows the Parah Adumah, a lesson for all of us in how to deal with our own fear of death.

Forty years ago this month, with the entire world of their day as well as future generations watching, three men conquered their fear of the unknown, landing on the Moon in the Apollo 11 mission. They used training and simulators to get rid of the unknown; as Buzz Aldrin wrote, “True fear is the fear of the unknown, and all our training had been geared towards eliminating the unknown as much as possible.”

But when a human being confronts death, he can’t eliminate the unknown; there is no ‘death simulator’ available. Nonetheless, the Parah Adumah’s message is that any of us can conquer our fear of the unknown by remembering that just as HaShem was at our side at the waters of Marah, and just as HaShem was present at Sinai, so HaShem will be with us now to help us along.

1. I am always loathe to suggest original ideas, and particularly regarding Parah Adumah, regarding which the sages teach that we cannot divine the explanation for some of its details. However, I base my comments on those of the sefer Or Avraham; he pointed out (based on the wording of a special tefillah for Parshat Parah) that Parah has the two elements of Marah and Eigel, and that the Eigel explanation is associated with Parshat Chukat but that other explanations would be necessary for Marah.

2. Of course, the gemara and most midrashim exclude parah adumah from Marah, offering other definitions of חק there, but parah adumah is the one that Rashi chooses to present.

3. I also wanted to do something with the ezov of korban pesach and tolaat shani of mishkan, but the erez is more problematic. Of course, the general bundle appears in taharat metzora.

4. Miriam is the Torah's icon of fearlessness in many more ways, but I left her larger story out lest it distract, and focussed specifically on the fear-of-death element.

5. Buzz Aldrin's comments are found


  1. From R' ARR on The Rav
    "My father Rabbi Moshe told me that when his father, Rabbi Haym seized by the fear of death he would throw himself heart and mind into the laws of the defilement of the corpses and the laws of mourning in order to calm the turbulence of his soul"
    Joel Rich