"Bring a completely red young cow upon which no yoke was laid. And you shall give it to Elazar the kohen, and he shall take it outside the camp and slaughter it in his presence." (Num. 19:2-3)

The Red Cow is an allusion to the Oral Torah, the attribute of Justice in its most severe form. This attribute is the source of ritual impurity. The reason why this chore was given to Elazar to perform was in order that he should address the attribute of Justice in its most concentrated form. Such thoughts should not be held against him [seeing it stated repeatedly that all offerings are addressed to Havayah, the attribute of Mercy], as it was slaughtered outside holy precincts and was not considered as a sacrificial offering.

The reason that this Red Cow was slaughtered outside the holy precincts of the Temple was in order for it to be able to chase away, or diffuse, the spirit of impurity. This is why the remains of the cow [its ashes] together with the water from an original source, "living waters", would effect purification by means of the vessel within which it was contained (verse 17). Purity is derived from an influence exerted by the attribute of Mercy, an emanation higher than that of gevura, i.e. the attribute of Justice, that responsible for every kind of impurity.

You will need to appreciate that some Kabbalists are in doubt whether the fact that the procedure involving the Red Cow was carried out completely outside the confines of the Temple meant that it represented a higher degree of sanctity than that which pervaded the Sanctuary. In other words, everything connected with the Red Cow would have represented "Holy of Holies", whereas only a small portion of the Sanctuary itself was designated as "Holy of Holies". If so, the level of sanctity represented by the Red Cow, as well as by its remains, would have been superior to that of the sacrificial animals offered on the Altar inside the precincts of the Temple, so that there was really no comparison between the Red Cow and its counterparts inside the Holy Temple.

On the other hand, some Kabbalists think that the reason the procedure of the Red Cow was conducted outside holy precincts points to the fact that its sanctity was below that of even the lowest level of sanctity inside the holy precincts and that this is the reason that no part of it was processed inside those confines. These people then raised the following question: assuming that the Red Cow was of such a high level of sanctity as the levels of sanctity in the Temple, how could it possibly confer impurity on its [uncontaminated] handlers? On the other hand, if it was of such inferior sanctity that it had to be slaughtered and its remains kept outside sacred ground, how was it capable of conferring purity on the previously impure?

The fire of the Shechinah displaces or relegates terrestrial fires….

Some Kabbalists answered these questions by saying that indeed the entire Red Cow was "Holy of Holies" and that the reason it conferred impurity on its handlers was that any pure person on earth will automatically become impure through contact with extraterrestrial purity i.e. celestial purity [or sanctity]. This concept is reflected in the Torah phrase "anyone touching the Altar will become holy" (Ex. 29:37) i.e. will be burnt [as had happened to the two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu]. Total terrestrial sanctity is relegated when it confronts celestial sanctity. What applies to relative sanctity, i.e. terrestrial sanctity versus celestial sanctity, also applies to terrestrial purity as opposed to celestial purity. This may be the meaning of the Talmudic concept that "one category of fire displaces, relegates, another category of fire" (Yoma 21) - that the "fire" of the Shechinah displaces or relegates terrestrial fires.

The Talmud there describes the penalty incurred by the angels who had opposed the creation of Adam by saying that he did not deserve G‑d's consideration. G‑d is reported as having stretched out His finger at these angels and burning them. If differences in the quality of fire exist among the angels in the celestial regions, it is easy to understand why terrestrial fire should be inferior to even the lowest of the celestial fires….

According to some Kabbalists the Red Cow was entirely in the category of "Holy of Holies". Personally, I feel that in some respects it was holy whereas in other respects it was totally secular in status. Seeing that the Red Cow transmits a spirit of ritual impurity, it contains a purely secular element. Seeing, however, that the Torah refers to it as "chatat", i.e. acting as a means to expiate, it must also contain an element of holiness. Because of the fact that it is composed of two opposite elements, the Torah applied stricter rules to it than apply to the animals which serve as sacrificial offerings on the Altar, seeing no one is in doubt about their status.

The bodies of people whose death is due to a 'kiss' of G‑d do not become ritually impure….

The reason that the Torah writes here about the rules of purification for people contaminated by impurity conferred by contact with the dead is that the ash of the Red Cow is so crucial in the purification process of such people. The root cause of living creatures contracting spiritual impurity dates back to the original cause of death, the serpent in the Garden of Eden.… Nachmanides writes that the bodies of people whose death is due to a "kiss" of G‑d do not become ritually impure. The prophet Zechariah in that verse describes the elimination of death, the Angel of Death, etc., in the future; he employs the simile of the "great mountain which will be flattened at that time", describing the overcoming of the greatest obstacle in our lives on this earth prior to the coming of the Mashiach. This is what Maimonides had in mind when he stipulates that the Red Cow which will be burned by the Mashiach will be the tenth and final one, as with the absence of death there will be no need for further such means of purification.

[Selected with permission from the seven-volume English edition of "The Torah Commentary of Rebbeinu Bachya" by Eliyahu Munk.]