Parashat Hukkat

The biblical categories tahor and tamei, usually translated “pure” and “impure,” mean something like insider/outsider. One who is tahor can enter the sanctuary, the dwelling-place of God’s presence and the heart of Israelite ritual. One who is tamei cannot. Tum’ah, impurity, can be contracted by a variety of circumstances including contact with dead bodies, menstruation, ejaculation, and childbirth. There are many theories about the nature of these categories-Mary Douglas, for example, who believes that things are impure or taboo because they cross boundaries in an uncanny way, or the ancient philosopher Philo who believed the system of tahor/ tamei symbolically imparted ethical concepts. My own current sense, influenced by Aviva Zornberg’s new book The Murmuring Deep: Reflections on the Biblical Unconscious, is that things or entities become tamei when biblical society wants or needs to repress them.

Death is tamei, because it frightens humans and challenges the life-giving powers of God. Childbirth, menstrual blood, and semen are tamei, because the life-giving powers of women and men are uncanny, echoing God’s power to create. And the metzora, the one afflicted with a biblical skin disease called tzara’at (commonly though inaccurately known as leprosy), are tamei because their skin condition reminds others of disease and death. Feared states are banned from the sanctuary, making it a place where God’s transcendent power reigns supreme. This allows the ritual system to function, providing a sense of order and safety, but also leaves important truths outside the tribal walls.

What is the remedy for repression? In Parashat Hukkat, the Torah details the preparation of a mixture using ashes of a red heifer, a mixture that turns tamei to tahor and allows those who have encountered death to re-enter the sanctuary. This mixture is called mei nidah or waters of impurity. Into this mixture, in addition to the heifer’s ashes, goes hyssop and scarlet thread, and cedar wood. All of these things are elements of the sanctuary: hyssop used by priests for sprinkling, cedar for the wooden poles, scarlet thread for the curtains. These sacred substances mix with death- the corpse of the red heifer-to create a potion that combines death-consciousness and life-consciousness. According to the Ishbitzer Rebbe, the potion contains the four elements/four worlds of earth, air, fire, and water, allowing the individual to re-integrate the whole. It is this potion that can cross the bridge from tamei back to tahor, from repression back to sacred consciousness. Through the ashes of the red heifer, one who has come into contact with exiled truths can integrate them and return to the tribal center of meaning.

Immediately after the discussion of the red heifer ritual, Miriam dies. This is the first time we have heard of her since she challenged her brother Moses’ leadership and was stricken with tzara’at. Miriam herself is a repressed entity: a prophetess-priestess whose existence is literally exiled outside the camp. Yet the repressed always returns. After Miriam’s death, the people clamor for water, complaining: “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to bring us to this terrible place, a seedless place without a fig or a vine or a pomegranate, without even water to drink?” (Numbers 20:5) The fig, the vine, and the pomegranate are all symbols of the feminine (as when the Psalmist says: “your wife shall be a fruitful vine inside your house”; Psalm 128:3). So is water itself: the patriarchs tend to meet their future wives by wells, and it is women who float Moses on the Nile.

In Numbers, the people are subconsciously complaining about the loss of Miriam and her leadership. A rabbinic midrash claims that the people have no water because the “well of Miriam,” a mysterious well that wanders with the people through the desert, has disappeared (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 9a, Bava Metzia 17a, Shabbat 35a). This midrash also seems to indicate that the loss of Miriam is sublimated in the people’s thirst. Moses responds angrily to the people’s complaints, snapping: “Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?” The word rebels, morim, is spelled the same as Miriam. Moses has made a Freudian slip, letting us know that he too is thinking of Miriam, even though he never mentions her again. Moses strikes the rock, and the waters pour out-Miriam, the woman of water, is freed from her hiding place and once again courses among the people.

The waters of the red heifer and the waters of Miriam are keys to reintegration: they remind us that the repressed returns, and that our truths inevitably must arise into consciousness. When we are in the mode of contradiction, we are forced to choose between tamei and tahor, between the perspective of the outsider and the perspective of the insider. When we let go of the contradictions and allow ourselves to embody multiple truths, we become insider/outsider. We can approach the Torah like the red heifer, as healers and weavers, bringing together elements that appear contradictory. We can crack open the monolithic rock and let the multiplicity of waters flow free.


Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at The Academy of JewishReligion ( as well as the co-founder of Tel Shemesh ( and the Kohenet Institute ( She is the author of The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons and Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women.