We know that the Book of Bamidbar consists of two distinct parts. The first part of the book describes events that took place in the first two years of the journey in the Sinai desert. The second part, beginning with chapter 20 describes the events which took place in the 40th year of the journey.
Therefore, there is a question regarding the law of the Red Heifer, in chapter 19 which opens the Sidra of Chukkat. When was it given? Some commentators maintain that it was given in the second year of the journey. It is a continuation of the theme of the previous Sidra of Korach. This focuses on the relationship between the Priests, Levites and Israelites.
After Korach’s tragic uprising, which questioned the special status of the Priests and Levites, the Torah set boundaries with a view of clearly separating these three groups and established the laws regarding their responsibilities towards each other. For example, in the last sentence of the Sidra of Korach the Israelites are warned not to eat foods from which the priestly gifts have not been separated. The penalty for this sin is very severe. It is death. This is the last word in the Sidra of Korach.
The theme of the law of the Red Heifer is clearly connected with this last law. It is also about death. It was given in order to warn those individuals who had become defiled through contact with a corpse, not to enter the sanctuary and not to eat holy foods. They would first have to go through the purification process. The Torah demands that the Jewish people should avoid unnecessary contact with death and completely refrain from having any contact with the dead or their graves. In other ancient cultures, communication with the dead was integral to their religious beliefs. In these cultures, several magical rituals were connected with bringing the spirits of the dead to life. On the other hand, the Torah wants a total division between life and death. Life is absolutely holy. We are not permitted to do anything to violate this holiness. Suicide, for any reason, is a most grievous sin. Death is AVI AVOT HATUMAH, the greatest form of defilement and belongs only to God's domain.
The famous commentator, Isaac Abarbanel, was a great statesman. He lived in Spain in the fifteenth century and was among the Jews who were exiled from Spain. He wrote an extremely large commentary on the Bible. He explains that the law of the Red Heifer was given to the second generation in the desert, in the fortieth year after the Exodus. This was in preparation for the wars of conquest, which were about to be waged. The Israelites were expecting many casualties, so Moses was commanded to give them guidance.
The Torah calls the law of the Red Heifer ‘Chok’. Our rabbis maintained that a Chok is a law which cannot be explained with human rationale. Nevertheless, we have to observe it in obedience to the divine decree. The inexplicable element in this law is not only the nature of the ritual. It is the fact that ashes are used in order to purify those who had become defiled, yet, at the same time, it defiles those who slaughter the heifer and prepare the ashes.
In the days of Moses, the first Red Heifer was slaughtered by Ele’azar, who was Aaron’s third son. The ashes of the first red heifer lasted for almost 900 years until the second one was slaughtered, which took place in the days of Ezra Ha’Sofer. There have been nine Red Heifers altogether in the course of Jewish history. Rabbeinu Asher ben Yechiel, who wrote a commentary on the Talmud, in the Middle Ages, proves that the ashes of the Red Heifer continued to be used for the purpose of purification at least until the year 370 CE. It is interesting to note that the Ethiopian community, called BETA ISRAEL, which immigrated to Israel during the 1990s, continued the practice of sprinkling the ashes until modern times. Their last Red Heifer was slaughtered in 1952. In recent years a number of Jewish groups have striven to find a red heifer, but they have not been successful.
According to rabbinic tradition, Ele’azar assumed the responsibility for the preparation of the order of purification, because Aaron had disqualified himself by participating in the building of the Golden Calf. However, it is also possible that at the age of 123 Aaron was too old to perform this duty. This explanation would indicate that the law of the Red Heifer was, indeed, given in the 40th year. We find that Ele’azar took over from his father on a number of other occasions and that he succeeded him after his death. Indeed, later in this Sidra we learn that he accompanied his father on his last journey to the mountain and cared for him at the moment of his death. Pinchas, who became very prominent afterwards, was Ele’azar’s son.
The Sidra continues on the theme of death. The story about the journey in the desert in the 40th year resumes with Miriam’s death in the town of Kadesh. She died at the age of 127, on the 10th of the first month, which is Nisan. Moses was extremely attached to his sister. It may well be that her death caused Moses to commit the grave sin which sealed his fate. He also died, at the age of 120, later in the same year, on the 7th of the 12th month, which is Adar. After the Israelites left the town of Kaddesh, Aaron died in the middle of the journey at the age of 123. His death was so traumatic that the actual date of his death, the first of the fifth month, which is AV, is recorded in the Torah. It happened at a place called Hor Ha’har, which is situated on the western side of the Arava, at the southern tip of the Dead Sea.
According to our tradition the Israelites were more upset when Aaron died than when his two siblings died. This tradition is based on the fact that the Torah says, in chapter 20, verse 29: “When the people saw that Aaron had died, the entire house of Israel cried for him for 30 days”. By contrast, the Torah does not say anything about the people’s grief when Miriam died. This may have been because as soon as she died they had no water to drink and they suffered. They were, therefore, unable to focus on Miriam’s death at all. When Moses died, the Torah says “that the Israelites wept and mourned for him”. However, our ancient rabbis observed that the Torah does not say that the whole nation mourned for him. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin, in his commentary, Oznayim Latorah, suggests the following explanation for the different reactions to Moses’ and Aaron’s death. The people had been prepared for Moses death. Before he died, Moses blessed all the tribes with great warmth. There is a whole Sidra VEZOT HABBERACHA to commemorate this event. On the other hand, when Aaron died they were not prepared. It was exceptionally sudden. Aaron climbed up the mountain and never returned. He left the people without saying goodbye and giving them his blessing. This caused them very great sadness.