Collateral For Atonement

Numbers 19:1-22:1

An entire chapter of Parashat Chukat is concerned with the ashes of the Red Heifer. As we have seen in previous volumes of the 5 Minute Torah, the Torah’s instructions about the ashes of the Red Heifer provide more questions than answers. First, this entire ritual seems illogical. Why in the world would the ashes of a cow be used for purification? Second, the process is counter-intuitive. Why do the ashes of the Red Heifer make a ritually unclean person clean and a ritually clean person unclean? But in our present commentary, we want to ask another question. Why are the laws of the Red Heifer immediately followed by the news of Miriam’s death?

From a superficial reading, sometimes the Torah can seem like a hodgepodge of information dumped together with no logical organization. As we mentioned, our present Torah portion begins with the laws governing the ashes of the red heifer and is followed by the death of Miriam. This is followed by the incident regarding the waters of Meribah, then the death of Aaron. There doesn’t seem to be a logical progression from one subject to the next. It’s a little history mixed with various laws. However, if we take a deeper look we will see the divine inspiration of the Torah’s logic.

Rashi, the eleventh-century French rabbi and preeminent Torah scholar, takes note of the specific order of details the Torah gives us in this Torah portion. Since we read about the death of Miriam immediately following the instructions regarding the red heifer, Rashi believes there is something significant about this order and that these two topics are connected. His comments may sound surprising. Rashi says that just as the ashes of the red heifer bring atonement, so too does the death of the righteous. He pulls his observation from both the Talmud and the Midrash. In the Talmud, Rabbi Ami (from the third century) poses this exact same question along with the same conclusion:

Rabbi Ami said: Why was the Torah portion that describes the death of Miriam juxtaposed to the portion dealing with the red heifer? To tell you: Just as the red heifer atones for sin, so too, the death of the righteous atones for sin. (b.Moed Katan 28a)

The Midrash takes this concept a step further and makes a connection between the death of Aaron’s sons and the atonement of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement):

The sons of Aaron died on the first of Nisan [in the spring]. Why then is their death mentioned in connection with the Day of Atonement [in the fall]? It must be to teach that as the Day of Atonement effects atonement, so the death of the righteous effects atonement. (Leviticus Rabbah 20:12)

Both of these commentaries may come as a shock to readers who are not familiar with Rabbinic thought. However, these concepts are the keys to unlocking the power of Yeshua’s atonement on our behalf. Rabbi Ami’s comment in the Talmud sets the precedent that the death of a righteous person has the ability to bring with it atonement. If this is the case, how much more so would the death of a completely righteous person—i.e. Yeshua—have the ability to atone for the entire world.

The Midrash’s view of the death of Aaron’s sons is very similar to Yeshua’s death. Like Aaron’s sons, Yeshua died in the spring, specifically at Passover. Many people have connected him to the Passover lamb, but the Passover lamb wasn’t sacrificed for atonement. Therefore, just as the Midrash connects the death of Aaron’s sons to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), we tend to connect Yeshua’s atoning death with it as well, rather than Passover.

Exodus Rabbah has a very interesting connection that ties these concepts together. In a lengthy commentary of Exodus 26:15, the Midrash asserts (based on the grammar of the verse) that the Tabernacle would serve as collateral for Israel. This means that if ever Israel would forsake their covenant, God would take the Tabernacle from them as payment for their sins. But what if, asks the Midrash, there is no Tabernacle to take when Israel strays from the covenant? It answers by saying:

The Holy One, blessed be He, replied: “I will then take one of their righteous men and retain him as collateral on their behalf, in order that I may grant them atonement for all their sins.” (Exodus Rabbah 35:4)

Yeshua, the completely righteous Son of God, not only atones for our sin as the Red Heifer, not only as the death of Miriam, not only as the death of Aaron’s sons and Yom Kippur but also as the one whom God would take as collateral so that atonement could be made on our behalf to absolve us from all our sins. Let’s guard this truth within our hearts and live each day taking advantage of that redemption he gave to us, not wasting away our days, but making the most of them so that his sacrifice will not be in vain.