The red heifer, the “holy cow” which features so prominently in the Torah portion of this week, played a double role in the history of our people.
The apparent purpose of slaughtering this animal and burning it was to provide the ashes that would be part of the purification process for a Jew who had become ritually impure because of contact with the dead. Our Sages, however, saw this as also serving as an atonement for the sin of the golden calf. They compare this to the situation of a child dirtying the palace of the king, requiring the mother to clean up. The golden calf spiritually contaminated the Jewish People, and its virtual mother — the red heifer — was called upon to remove the filth.
One of the requirements for the red heifer was that a yoke was never placed upon it. This was to atone for the removal of the yoke of responsibility expressed in abandoning G-d for the golden calf. The moral of the story is that when Jews feel free to “take their destiny into their own hands” and abandon their responsibility as a Torah people, the inevitable result is a golden calf and the tragedy it triggered.
May reflecting on the need for a red heifer atonement serve to remind us of our responsibility to Heaven which alone can secure Israel forever.