The Torah is full of symbolism that cries out for explanation. As always, the answers are found in the text itself – if we read it carefully.
One of the most famous rituals is that of the red heifer (Num: 19). The problem is how to rid someone of the spiritual effects of having been in contact with the dead. Spiritually, a person who has touched the dead is unable to fulfill their potential, to resume a full relationship with G-d. Death taints us. And the Torah tells us how to wash that taint away.
In order to make this as easy as possible to explain, I am going to cheat by giving you the punchline first: the ritual of the red heifer is a way to symbolically travel back in time, to before there was death on the earth, to essentially recreate man just as G-d created Adam. Thus reborn, we can rejoin the living world and strive once again for holiness.
Here is the recipe as given in the Torah.
1: A red female cow who has never been yoked.
2: Cedar wood, grass, and something often translated as “crimson yarn”
3: Water of Life
Slaughter the cow, burn it, and add the cedar wood, grass, and crimson yarn. Collect the ashes.
Mix the ashes with the Water of Life and then sprinkle it on a person who has touched a corpse. Do it on the third day, and then again on the seventh day.
Voila! One spiritually reborn Jew.
How is this symbolic time travel back to the time of Adam? I’ll explain each element in turn, and how they connect.
1: The red heifer is, in Hebrew, a “parah adumah.” She is a heifer, because women are capable of incubating and birthing new life. And the word for “red” shares its root with the word for “earth”, “Adam,” and “blood.” All are connected to the concept of enormous potential to create and foster life. The red heifer is the antithesis of death.
She also can never have been yoked – because mankind yoked animals only after death existed. We are going back in time, remember, before animals were used as tools.
2: The cedar wood and grass represent the two opposites of the plant kingdom. The cedar is the oldest and tallest flora in the ancient Middle East, fixed in place. The grass, on the other hand, is small and rapid-growing, short-lived and adaptable. And both were created on the third day of creation – the day G-d made life itself. They are book-ends to represent the entire vegetable kingdom, everything created on that day when G-d made life.
Together the cow and the plants combine the items created in the first creation: all plants and animals, save only for mankind.
2b: The stuff described as “crimson yarn” is trickier. It is used together with the cedar and grass in another ritual, the one cleansing a person of another spiritual ailment; these three go together. But why?
The answer is found in the words themselves. The crimson yarn contains within its first root word the same root as the word in Hebrew for “time.” (Gen. 8:11, 24:11) And the second root word comes from the word for “second” – as in, “a second chance.” The crimson yarn is “Another/a second time.” Together with the plants, it represents time travel back to the birth of life on the earth. The person who receives the ritual is given a second chance, a do-over.
3: The Water of Life. The priest mixes the ashes with this water and puts it on a person. The language is very similar to the way G-d made Adam: the whole earth was watered. He took ashes from the earth, and infused man with life. (excerpted from Gen 2:6,7). The living water symbolically mirrors the creation of man.
The entire ritual then, is one of rebirth, calling us back to the time before there was death, to undo the contact we had made with the dead and allow us to once again move forward among the living.
This is done on the third day – the day G-d created life. And again on the seventh day – the day G-d first set an example for man to follow, keeping the Sabbath. The combination is what any would-be holy person needs: life, and a good role model to set us on our way.
P.S. The combination of cedar, grass, and crimson yarn is also found in Lev. 14, and it denotes symbolic time travel in that case as well, to the time before the first murder, to before Cain’s slaughter of Abel.