Among the perplexing passages in the Bible is the description of the ritual of the Red Heifer. According to the Torah (Numbers 19), a person who comes in contact with a corpse is ritually defiled and must undergo a procedure of cleansing and recovery over seven days which includes bathing and the application of a mixture of ashes from a Red Heifer added into water and sprinkled with hyssop. What makes this ritual puzzling is that its efficacy remains unexplained and the procedure itself reveals an anomaly: the ritual purifies the defiled but also defiles the person who performs it.
The Rabbis and later commentators expend much effort and considerable time in trying to figure out the meaning of the ceremony, the nature of ritual defilement, and some justification for how it succeeds. Aside from these areas of concern, the Rabbis use the rarity of the Red Heifer – an unblemished cow whose hide is entirely red in color – as a symbol of that which is practically unattainable but highly desirable. Consequently, the Red Heifer, or more precisely, the owner of a Red Heifer, stood to profit greatly since it is through this ritual alone that defiled Jews could enter the Temple.
One particular story illustrates this point. Dama, the son of Netinah, was a gentile who lived in Ashkelon. When a delegation of Sages sought to buy from his father the precious jewels that could adorn the High Priest’s breastplate, Dama refused to fetch the key to chest where the jewels were stored since the key lied under the pillow where his father was sleeping. Ever the respectful son, Dama would not disturb his father although the deal would have earned him a fortune. Readers may admire Dama’s thoughtfulness but question his sanity. Surely a brief inconvenience would be remedied by a life of luxury thereafter! But, the Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) argues, revering parents is of inestimable worth. Even if readers are convinced of this truth, still, it would seem that a person so devoted to respecting a father deserves some reward. Dama lost out on a profitable deal.
No worries. The Talmud goes on to say that a Red Heifer was born to a cow in Netinah’s herd the following year. True to his principles, Dama was not prepared to sell this precious commodity for “all the money in the world.” Rather he would sell the Red Heifer for the same amount he turned down for the jewels.
This remarkable story is not at all concerned with explaining the efficacy of the ritual of the Red Heifer but seeing the Red Heifer as item that equates with the value of honoring parents.