|The 137th Psalm, a hymn of the exiles of Jerusalem during the Babylonian captivity, eloquently expresses the yearnings of the Jewish people for their homeland, their City and their Temple - then and now.
Jerusalem, Our Spiritual Source
Jerusalem, the city chosen by G-d, has always remained the focal point of the Jewish people and the object of all their yearnings. The Jews have never had another capital, and it has never been the capital of any other nation. The unique status the city holds for the people of Israel is unparalleled. And the Holy Temple that stood in Jerusalem is what gave the city its eternal meaning. It still continues to inspire its future hope. The Temple was not only the soul of the city, but the soul and conscience of the entire earth; the wonder of the world and focal point for the prayers of mankind... as it will be again. Through all their bitter wanderings, Jews have prayed three times daily "may the Holy Temple be rebuilt speedily and in our day." And when a Jew prays, wherever in the world he happens to be, he stands and faces Jerusalem and the spot of the Holy Temple, just as Daniel did in Babylonian captivity. The act of facing Jerusalem in prayer shows solidarity with our spiritual source.
For a period spanning nearly 1,000 years, the Holy Temple functioned as the heart of the Jewish people. It was the center of life for all that was considered of value in Israel: the kingdom, the spirit of prophecy, the Sanhedrin, and most importantly... the Divine service. Here, in this house of prayer for both Israel and the nations, the priests and levites attended to their sacred duties. From every corner of the ancient world, people streamed to the Holy Temple to absorb something of the holiness and the spirit of purity that resided in this place.
The Role of the Holy Temple
The Holy Temple was not just some magnificent building or synagogue rooted in Jerusalem's ancient Biblical past; it was an arena of cosmic themes; a place where man could meet with his Creator. This represents one of the most important concepts of Jewish belief: that man has the capacity to engage in a direct, constant, and fulfilling relationship with his Creator. It was the world's true spiritual center, and the medium for that unfolding relationship.
It is the reality of the living memory of that relationship as it once was, and the dream of its renewal, that keeps the fires of the Temple altar burning within the collective heart of the nation of Israel, and the hearts of all those who cherish her G-d and His message for humanity. The Holy Temple is the secret of the Jewish people's survival; when it stands in the place chosen by the Creator, Israel is able to focus and connect all of her energies and powers to a sense of Divine purpose. This is the role of the Holy Temple in the life of man: to enable one to realign himself, to dedicate one's whole self to G-d, to elevate every aspect of the human experience to holiness and return the energy which He gives us to His service.
Rabban Yochanan and the Destruction
The Jewish people have never forgotten the Holy Temple; it has never left their collective consciousness, not even for an instant. The great Jewish leader Rabban Yochanan was an eye-witness to the Temple's destruction. Acting out of a firm belief that the Temple would be rebuilt speedily, and concerned that its practices and procedures should remain fresh in Israel's collective memory, Rabban Yochanan enacted a series of measures which fully demonstrate the centrality of the Holy Temple in the lives of the Jewish people... a centrality so vibrant and a force so powerful in her life, that it remains not merely a memory, but a fire which refuses to be extinguished. Truly, all other factors in Israel's national life are eclipsed by the importance of the Holy Temple.
Rabban Yochanan's legislation includes, for example, the ruling that priests who can keep track of the day on which their shift serves in the Temple service should behave themselves on those days as if the Temple still stood - meaning, they should abstain from drinking wine, so that they will remain in a state of readiness to resume their priestly duties.
Similarly, other customs were adopted by the majority of Israel which were designed to keep the Temple's memory at the forefront of their awareness. For example, the famed sage Hillel's custom of eating the matzah and bitter herb together in a sandwich on the seder night, in the same manner that the Passover celebrants ate in Jerusalem in the shadow of the Temple. Likewise, to paraphrase Psalms 137:6, "Jerusalem is to be raised above our chiefest joy." Thus at the hour of a man's chiefest joy, his wedding, he breaks a glass under his foot to symbolize the destruction of the House of the Lord. The message is clear: Even this great moment of joy, perhaps the greatest of his life, cannot be complete as long as the Temple still lies in ruins.
In section 560 of Rabbi Joseph Caro's (1488 - 1575) monumental Code of Jewish Law, we find other instances of these remembrances which were enacted by the great sages living in the generation of the Second Temple's destruction. For example, when an individual builds a home, he must leave a small section of the wall opposite the entrance blank and unplastered.
The Red Heifer: The Missing Ingredient
What does a red heifer have to do with any of this? Perhaps it would be difficult for some to believe that a cow could be so important. But in truth, the fate of the entire world depends on the red heifer. For G-d has ordained that its ashes alone are the single missing ingredient for the reinstatement of Biblical purity - and thereafter, the rebuilding of the Holy Temple. And as we will discuss in these pages, the ashes of the red heifer rectifies humanity's most basic flaw: despair. The despair brought about by the loss of the Temple and the Divine Presence amongst us.
Purification with the red heifer reminds us that man has the potential to rise above his transitory physical existence, with all its false sense of hopelessness and misery... the "impurity" of death. This is the role of the Third Temple for all mankind, and this is the Messianic vision of the future: the call to live an eternal life, liberated from the sham and unhappiness which is the sum total of the human condition for so many people. The call for the true joy of living life to the fullest - with the knowledge of G-d.
The Divine ordinance of the heifer, beyond the grasp of man's frail intellect, with all the details of its preparation and ceremony, calls out to Israel and to all who seek to cling to the living word of the G-d of Israel: "Purify yourselves! Shake off your despair! Death is an illusion!" Thus it is written, "...but all of you who cling to the Lord your G-d...you are all alive today" (Deut. 4:4)
The Mystery of the Heifer is Above Human Understanding
The great sages of Israel consider this precept to be the deepest mystery of the Torah. For a great, enigmatic contradiction surrounds it: although the ashes of the red heifer have the inexplicable power to cleanse all those who have been rendered unclean, contact with the very same ashes for those who are pure has the opposite effect... it makes them unclean!
King Solomon, who was the wisest of all human beings who ever lived, understood every aspect of G-d's creation. Tradition relates that he even knew the languages of all the animals. Yet he was not able to fathom the secret of the red heifer, and after contemplating it, he declared "I said, 'I will become wise, but it is far from me' (Ecc. 7:23)."
The commandment of the red heifer is one of those ordinances that belong to the category of chok (plural, chukim). These are statutes that G-d decreed that cannot be understood by human reasoning. Rather, He requires that we perform them on account of our love and fear for Him. Although we can try to delve into the explanation of these laws, and attempt to find some allusion or sense of the ideas conveyed, we know that ultimately their true meaning is beyond our intellectual grasp.
The Golden Calf
In this light, we are aware of an important tradition taught by the rabbis: there is a connection between the concept of the red heifer and the sin of the Golden Calf which Israel, under the influence of the Mixed Multitude, committed in the desert forty days after the Revelation at Mount Sinai.
The consequences of this sin were enormous, for it was this single event which introduced the concept of the impurity of death into the world. The rabbis employ a parable to aid in our understanding of the cord that connects between the golden calf and the red heifer:
"A handmaiden's son soiled the king's palace with his filth. The king commanded, 'Let the mother come, and clean up the child's filth'."
In the same way, the red heifer serves to atone for the spiritual chaos brought into the world through the golden calf.
Similarly, the prohibition against a yoke, as well as other aspects of this detailed commandment, can be interpreted on a symbolic level. For example, the heifer must not have harnessed a yoke, for it reminds us that at the fiasco of the golden calf, Israel threw off the yoke of heaven. It must be red, on account of the verse which promises "If your sins will be red as scarlet, they shall whiten as snow" for sin is alluded to as red. But it must be "perfect" in its redness, for Israel was faultless in her devotion to G-d before she sinned.
But it must be remembered that all of these comments are merely allegorical allusions, for we cannot even scratch the surface of understanding the true nature and essence of this commandment...
Moses Understood the Mystery
In the future world, when all men live on a higher plane of awareness, we shall be able to understand the mystery of the red heifer. In the meantime, Moses was the only human being to whom G-d ever granted the ability to understand. This is expressed by the words of the verse, "Speak to the children of Israel and have them bring you a red heifer." As the sages comment on these words, "G-d told Moses, 'To you I have revealed its secret; but for everyone else, it shall remain a chok - it must be adhered to without questioning."
The story of the red heifer has attracted the attention of thousands, the world over. In Jerusalem, we continue to receive letters from people hailing from many countries and all walks of life, always asking the same questions: "Is there a red heifer yet?" "Could you teach us about the red heifer?" Indeed, a cow can be very important, to many people!
Perhaps this unusual degree of global interest can best be illustrated by a story recorded in the Talmud, almost 2,000 years ago: