Parah Adumah: Finding Meaning in the Red Heifer Practice

There is an important opportunity in the red heifer Torah portion.

In the background of news footage, we often see people collecting body parts for preparation for burial; in Israel these are often trained burial society volunteers, chevra kaddishah members.

Whether in Israel or elsewhere, so often, the people who come upon a corpse are not immediate family with existing rituals to support them- the social worker, nurse, at home caretaker, janitor, rabbi, police, by-stander, etc. - all of these people take on the challenging experience sometimes termed corpse contamination, the residual hard to shake feeling from touching a dead body.

My experience is this kind of touching leaves a residue on the spirit that is not easily transformed. When I do chevra kaddishah work I still wish for a morning after ritual.

This week's Torah portion reflects an ancient understanding that it is possible to honor the impact of corpse contamination and to help ease a person's way with it. So our ancestors used a paste of ground red heifer ashes to help someone marked by this experience to feel better; this works in that sancta-based rituals can create an exponential increase in speed of healing.

So even though we no longer have the red heifer (though the search continues in some quarters), we do have the annual cycle of studying and integrating its meaning for ourselves and then the aliyah to honor this part of the Torah of living.

I have experimented with inviting up for an aliyah those who during the entire year felt themselves to have had this kind of impurification from direct corpse contact.

For those who have been in this condition, you know yourself immediately to be included. It will have varying significance for people, from shock to with exposure, desensitization, upon reflection having been through it is significant to take honor, to take in.

When you chant the aliyah's opening blessing and behind you the community responds, barukh adonai ham'vorakh l'olam va-ed, they can pray these words with a kavannah of appreciation for the difficult role you took on, intentionally or unintentionally...perhaps at the scene of an accident where you stopped to help...perhaps it is normal to your job as fireman, physician, undertaker, etc.

Look around during your aliyah, you will not be alone up there. Thank you for taking on the consequences of sacred service. May you be blessed for this experience to ultimately add to your appreciation of life and the cycle of life.

What might be added or changed about this blessing or model? Have others experimented with reclaiming meaning from the red heifer ritual? I'd love to hear from you.