Shaya Cohen -


Symbolic Time Travel

How many times have you wished you could go back and “do over” something you did or said? I know that such regrets filled my childhood. And the fact that it was impossible to “do over” or even undo something once it had been done, helped define me, for better or worse. Our very identities are linked to our personal histories.

In the Torah, there is a specific material, often translated as a “crimson thread”, that is a linguistic pun for “second time,” suggesting that there is a possibility of a do-over where the crimson thread is mentioned. We may not be able to undo what has been done, but at least symbolically, we can find a way to move forward, and not be limited by the past. Mankind’s commitment to growth and connection is clearly very important to G-d.

And so the text tells us how to overcome the inevitable impediments to that growth. One of the biggest ones is contact with the dead. If we have touched a dead person, we are spiritually blocked from connecting with the divine. But Judaism is about the living, not the dead – so in order to properly live, we must have a way to put contact with the dead behind us.

This way is a do-over ritual, that of the red heifer, moving back to the time before there was death in the world, all the way back to the Garden of Eden, to the creation of man.

I’ll use tables to show how this lines up:


Garden of Eden

Red Heifer

Before Agriculture

Animals were not worked by man

The red heifer has to be unyoked by man


The first, directly-created animals, lacked defects or blemishes

The red heifer must not have defects or blemishes

The natural world

The dirt/ashes represent the vitality of the freshly created earth

Adumah (red) is a pun with Adamah (earth)

Parah (cow) shares the root of Pri (fruit/procreation – also first mentioned on the third day). Together, they are the physical vitality of the earth (lacking the spiritual component which G-d/man provide). The cow is the elemental embodiment of the physical world.

Building Blocks

G-d uses the dust/ashes to create man, a building material

The red heifer is converted into a building block, through burning (saraf). Saraf first appears in the Tower of Babel Story: “They said to one another, Come, let us make bricks and burn them hard.” Burning is used as a constructive tool! The red heifer is burned (saraf), just as the bricks for the Tower of Babel were burned (saraf).

The burning transforms the

the cow into its essence. Those ashes then are stored to be used as needed, together with the “living water.”

Creation of Man

Man is made of “living spirit” and ashes

Man is anointed with “living water” and ashes

3 and 7

Physical life is created on the third day, and a connection with the divine is established the seventh

The living water and ashes are applied on the third and seventh days: physical and spiritual rebirth


When G-d created man, He limited Himself in so doing! The entire world, and the loaning of the soul to mankind, necessarily required G-d to restrict Himself in time and space. In other words, creating man required G-d to shrink, to contract.

The person who sprinkles the water and ashes, who symbolically makes the anointed person reborn, is themselves specifically made tamei, limited in spiritual growth.

The connection between Eden and the red heifer is thus pretty clear.

Other elements: the low grass, hyssop, is mentioned first at the Exodus:

Take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and apply some of the blood that is in the basin to the lintel and to the two doorposts.

So the mention of the hyssop is to connect us back to the birth of the Jewish people as a nation. The Exodus was the founding event of the Jewish people, and so the hyssop reminds us of that national birth, the time when we publicly acted to show that the task of an Israelite is to bring the animal kingdom (the blood), the vegetable kingdom (the hyssop), upward toward G-d, through our own efforts and our own homes.

The last ingredient is the cedar tree. Trees are in Genesis as bearers of fruit, but also the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is this fruit which irrevocably changes Adam and Eve. So the eating of the fruit is the first instance of “rebirth” in the Torah, a change in a person similar to that of the Exodus or red heifer.

The cedar is part of Bilaam’s blessing, the idyllic description of the Jewish nation:

Like palm-groves that stretch out, Like gardens beside a river, Like aloes planted by G-d, Like cedars beside the water;

So the cedar tree is something of an aspiration for us: we would like to become as good as Bilaam describes us, a spiritual wellspring for the world.

P.S. For those who would like to check the above against the text, I include it here. Note for the sake of space that I keep “pure” and “impure” but those words are better understood as “spiritually able to elevate” and “spiritually blocked from elevation.” Questions are welcome!

G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is the ritual law that G-d has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.

You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence.

Eleazar the priest shall take some of its blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned in his sight—its hide, flesh, and blood shall be burned, its dung included— and the priest shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff, and throw them into the fire consuming the cow. The priest shall wash his garments and bathe his body in water; after that the priest may reenter the camp, but he shall be impure until evening. The one who performed the burning shall also wash those garments in water, bathe in water, and be impure until evening. Another party who is pure shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a pure place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for purgation. The one who gathers up the ashes of the cow shall also wash those clothes and be impure until evening. This shall be a permanent law for the Israelites and for the strangers who reside among them. Those who touch the corpse of any human being shall be impure for seven days. They shall purify themselves with [the ashes] on the third day and on the seventh day, and then be pure; if they fail to purify themselves on the third and seventh days, they shall not be pure. Those who touch a corpse, the body of a person who has died, and do not purify themselves, defile G-d’s Tabernacle; those persons shall be cut off from Israel. Since the water of lustration was not dashed on them, they remain impure; their impurity is still upon them. This is the ritual: …Some of the ashes from the fire of purgation shall be taken for the impure person, and fresh water shall be added to them in a vessel. Another party who is pure shall take hyssop, dip it in the water, and sprinkle on the tent and on all the vessels and people who were there, or on the one who touched the bones or the person who was killed or died naturally or the grave. The pure person shall sprinkle it upon the impure person on the third day and on the seventh day, thus purifying that person by the seventh day. [The one being purified] shall then wash those clothes and bathe in water—and at nightfall shall be pure. If any party who has become impure fails to undergo purification, that person shall be cut off from the congregation for having defiled G-d’s sanctuary. The water of lustration was not dashed on that person, who is impure. That shall be for them a law for all time. Further, the one who sprinkled the water of lustration shall wash those clothes; and whoever touches the water of lustration shall be impure until evening. Whatever that impure person touches shall be impure; and the person who touches the impure one shall be impure until evening.

Comments are welcome!

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