Sacred species: The ecological message of the red cow

Andy Oram
July 17, 2023

The glory of God’s creation is vanishing, as millions of species succumb to human-induced environmental destruction. The Encyclopedia Britannica says “Researchers estimate that the current rate of species loss varies between 100 and 10,000 times the background extinction rate (which is roughly one to five species per year when the entire fossil record is considered). In addition, a 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services noted that up to one million plant and animal species are facing extinction due to human activities.” The U.N. cites similar statistics to warn about species loss.

Does the Jewish tradition champion the preservation of species? We have the example of Noah, who saved all the species of his time. But a more specifically Jewish mandate applies to the red cow (פרה אדומה) that appears in Numbers 19 as a means of purification. In English, this creature is usually called a “red heifer” because the surrounding text suggests it must be young.

The red heifer is uniquely important to the Jews. After being killed and burned, it provides the ashes necessary to purify people in preparation for important rites. Anyone partaking of the Passover sacrifice needed to undergo a purification ritual using its ashes before eating the Passover meal, so today the passage concerning the heifer is read at a Saturday service between Purim and Passover (Shabbat Parah).

In Temple times, the Levites depended even more on the red heifer. They couldn’t eat the food brought to them by the rest of the population—their only sustenance—if they had become defiled by proximity to a corpse. Only the ashes of the red heifer could serve in their purification rites. And if they couldn’t carry out the Temple sacrifices, as the Torah reminds them just 25 verses earlier (Numbers 18:5), the Israelites would suffer the full force of God’s fury.

So yes, the red heifer was important. The way it is introduced in Numbers 19:2—“This is the law of Torah”—has been interpreted to mean that the red heifer statute is equivalent to all of Torah.

But where is that heifer today? None exists. The Torah description of the heifer—all red, with no blemish—makes it sound rare, and some Talmud scholars believe that it hardly ever could be found. But given the detailed description of the heifer’s use and its centrality to Temple ritual, I have to believe it was easily and commonly found in those days. Maybe the priests interpreted “red” differently from how we do. But somewhere along the way, paralleling the loss of the Temple, we have lost this variety of cow.

I won’t cover the recent religious and political initiative to recreate a pure red cow. I believe the true meaning of the red cow is metaphorical. The color red is often taken to symbolize blood, the force within animal life. The heifer’s lack of blemish I interpret to be an admonition against human despoilation. Nature comes to us perfect, and the blemishes against which the Torah warns us are those introduced as we cut down forests and pollute the land and water.

Thus, our mission is not to recreate a particular symbolic species, but to rescue all species. We must remove the yoke from nature, halting our destruction. Only that way can we spare God’s fury and purify ourselves.

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