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B'Midbar/Numbers 19:3 ... and he shall bring her out to the outside of the camp and he shall slaughter her before him.
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While the 'her' in this text is the legendary red heifer, the 'he' immediately in view is Eleazar, the son of Aharon. He is currently simply Aharon's son, one of the priests, but in the next chapter - after the death of Miriam, Moshe and Aharon's disobedience over striking the rock for water, and Israel being refused passage by Edom on their journey to Mount Hor - Aharon is to die, so that Eleazar becomes the Cohen HaGadol, the High Priest. Friedman comments that "these first commands to Eleazar thus appear to be preparation for the moment of succession." Jacob Milgrom, on the other hand, suggests that "as in the previous case of the Korahite rebellion (17:2-4), Aharon was barred from officiating lest he become contaminated." Naturally, this leads to debate among the commentators as to who is allowed to supervise the slaughter of future generations of red heifer. Is it to be the High Priest, the deputy High Priest or simply one of the priests?
The last phrase of the verse also attracts attention, since the plain meaning of the words appears to be either wrong or at least impossible. The verb is a straightforward Qal affix 3ms form of the root - to slaughter or kill animals or persons (Davidson) - preceded by a vav-reversive, so converting the past tense "he slaughtered" to "and he shall slaughter". is the direct object indicator with a 3fs pronoun ending, so 'her', meaning the heifer. is the preposition - before, in the presence of - with a 3ms pronoun ending, literally "to his faces" but conventionally "before him". The grammatical or physical issue here is: how can 'he' slaughter the heifer before 'him', if Eleazar is the only person in view?Hirsch avoids the issue by suggesting that this is to indicate that Eleazar must concentrate fully upon the details of the ritual, not only to get the mechanical steps absolutely right, but to have true kavanah1 and devotion to HaShem. The more common approach is to assume that two people are involved in the process: someone else who slaughters the heifer and Eleazar to view and supervise the slaughtering. This position is supported by the next verse of the text, starting "Eleazar the Priest shall take some of her blood ..." (v. 4); it would not be necessary to name Eleazar if he were the subject of "he shall slaughter". Milgrom adds that since "the cow will also be burned in his presence, this is "an indication that it is imperative for the officiating priest to supervise the entire ritual."
If, then, the slaughterer is not Eleazar, does it matter who 'he' is? Rabbi Isaac asks a question (in b. Yoma 42a-43a) about who may slaughter the red heifer. A discussion between Rab and Samuel follows, to which other sages then contribute. All conclude that Eleazar (or his successor) must watch and supervise the operation. However, the last contribution appears to be that because there are several priestly tasks involved in the whole process - watching (v. 3), "taking the blood with his forefinger" (v. 4), adding "cedar wood, hyssop and crimson wool" (v. 5) - anything that is not specifically designated to the priest may be done by any Israelite, a lay person. So much so thatRashi makes the definitive statement: "A non-cohen slaughters and Eleazar watches".
The purpose of the red heifer is provide a means for purification from contact with death. Whether being in a tent where a person has died, touching a dead body in a tent or in the open field, or even touching a bone or walking over a grave, contact with death brings ritual impurity that can be transferred to others and prevents participation in any of the ritual of the cult: sacrifices, worship and so on. The remedy for this impurity was to wait seven days, being sprinkled with water containing the ashes of the red heifer on the third and seventh day after becoming impure and finally washing clothes and waiting until evening. The red heifer - which itself had to be pure and unblemished - was killed and burnt outside the camp, watched by the priest but slaughtered by someone who was not a priest, in order to provide ritual cleansing after contact with death.
The parallel to Yeshua seems rather obvious. Yeshua, who was himself pure and unblemished, was killed outside the city, "the place where Yeshua was put on the stake was close to the city" (John 19:20, CJB), watched by the priests, "the head cohanim jeered at Him, along with the Torah-teachers and elders" (Matthew 27:41, CJB), by the Romans, "the soldiers ... led Him away to be nailed to the execution stake" (Mark 15:16-20, CJB). But what about the cleansing - is that piece missing from the picture? No, Rav Sha'ul and John supply the link.
In Rav Sha'ul's letter to the believers in Rome, he told them that "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23). That is, since sin breaks G-d's holy law, the Torah, the punishment for sin is death. Life has to be shed to pay for sin; G-d said, "I have provided the blood for you to make atonement for your lives upon the Altar; it is the blood, the life, that makes atonement" (Vayikra 17:11, The Message). When Yeshua started His ministry, John told his disciples, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29, ESV). Yeshua Himself announced, "whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life" (John 5:24, ESV).
We all struggle with life and death issues today, although with society's unspoken taboo about death, they are often not recognised as such. Whether financial death, relationship death, physical death; whether death by cosmetics, drugs, alcohol, cars, fashion or food - death is all around us and we are constantly being barraged by manipulative messages that try to sell us an ever increasing range of products to give us life and enable us to stay young. We must hide and defer death as long as possible. But that struggle is in vain because - unless Yeshua returns within our physical lifetime - death is the one absolutely certain fact of life. Rav Sha'ul asks the question that would be on everyone's lips if they dared to ask it: "Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?" (Romans 7:24, ESV). His answer? "Thanks be to G-d in Messiah Yeshua our L-rd!" In Messiah we find the only cleansing from death that works, the only life that will last for ever. All we have to do is go outside the camp and ask.
1 - from the root - to set up, establish, prepare - kavanah is understood to describe the intention or direction of the heart. Judaism does not consider it enough to perform a mitzvah correctly but in the abstract; there must also be intentionality, a heart focus to serve and obey G-d and (where appropriate) to serve the recipient of the mitzvah.
Further Study: Colossians 1:21-23; Hebrews 13:12-15
Application: Have you trusted Yeshua to take away the death in your life? Don't leave it too late, or you may never get round to it - ask Him to explain today.
© Jonathan Allen, 2011
Comment - 04Jul11 23:02 Rory: As a believer with a Gentile backround, I continually find it interesting to see how the discussions of the rabbis through the ages since the fall of the temple about various details actually can be very important to more fully view The Messiah as my relationship is to be continuously unfolding in my life. This teaching on this weeks parashat is one of those views helping me understand how much was already written for us to understand once Ruach HaChodesh enters our hearts.
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