Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
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The Mystery of the Mount of Olives

As is known, everything about the Red Heifer is shrouded in mystery, and the location of its sprinkling is no exception. He who understands it will discover something fascinating...


Rabbi Netanel Yossifun

Adar II 22 5782
Translated by Hillel Fendel

When we look today from the Temple Mount/Western Wall area towards the east, what we see is a mountainside carpeted with gravestones – the famous Mt. of Olives cemetery, the foremost cemetery of the Jewish Nation. This mountain thus symbolizes the fundamental Jewish belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, which will begin when the mountain splits when the Redemption process starts (see Zecharia 14,4). In the face of those who despairingly see life as nothing more than a stepping-stone to death and nothingness, Judaism breathes a spirit of hope into the heart of man, showing that it is death that is transient, and that it will ultimately make way for renewed life.

Mt. of Olives did not always look like this. When the Holy Temples stood, the view towards the east was very different. Quite likely there were some gravesites along the mountain, but it was actually forbidden to bury the dead in the area precisely east of the Temple Mount's eastern gates. This was because of the commandment of the Red Heifer. How so?

The Red Heifer passage appears in Bamidbar 19, which states clearly that the High Priest is bidden to take the cow outside the Sanctuary and slaughter it; and before burning it, he is to sprinkle its blood precisely towards the eastern Sanctuary gates, and then burn the remains. This must all be done in a ritually pure location on the Mt. of Olives directly across from the eastern gates. (See Mishna Parah 3 and Talmud Yoma 16b.)

As is known, everything about the Red Heifer is shrouded in mystery, and the location of its sprinkling is no exception. He who understands it will discover something fascinating: The fact that the Mt. of Olives became a major cemetery over the centuries, and the fact that this area was designated as the site of the burning of the Red Heifer, both stem from the same root! To wit:

One of the fundamental laws of sacrifices is that the offerings are not allowed to be slaughtered outside the Temple. The idol-worshipers bring sacrifices to their gods "on every high mountain and below every green tree" (Yirmiyahu 2,20), while for Israel, there is only place for the sacrificial service to G-d – the site of the Holy Temple, "the place chosen by G-d" (D'varim 12,5). Other than during specified periods before the Holy Temple was built, one who slaughters a sacrifice outside the Temple is in violation of a Biblical commandment.

Why, then, is the Red Heifer different? Why must it be slaughtered outside the Temple, and nowhere else?

We have written elsewhere in this forum that the Holy Temple site corresponds to the site of the Garden of Eden. In brief, we explained, in accordance with Pirkei D'Rebbe Eliezer and Rashi, that Adam was banished from Eden towards the east, towards the site of the altar, his place of atonement, the place from which he was created. The altar is located east of the Sanctuary, which is thus parallel to the Garden of Eden. In the heart of the garden is the Tree of Life, which stands for the bringing of eternal life to the world and the end of the impurity of death.

However, Adam ultimately sinned and was banished from Eden towards the east, thus bringing upon himself and all mankind the decree of death (B'reshit 3). Later, his son Kayin turned the threat of death into something quite tangible, when he killed his brother Hevel – and he, too, suffered a similar punishment: He was banished to Nod, east of Eden (4,16). Rashi says there: "This was where his father [Adam] was banished to… We find that the eastern direction is always where murderers are banished to [see Bamidbar 4,41, discussing the cities of refuge]."

This point is manifest as well from a geographical standpoint. The Mt. of Olives separates between fertile Jerusalem to its west and the desolate Judean desert on the east. This is a rainshadow desert, in which the rain on the Judean Mountains – notably including Mt. of Olives – streams steeply down towards the Dead Sea, causing heat that impedes the clouds from bringing rain on the east. Thus, the area east of the Temple Mount separates between areas of rain and life, on the one hand, and those that bring about less rain and "death," on the other.

But in fact, death is a lie. Only the body dies, while the spiritual soul continues to live forever. This is why we were commanded to slaughter, sprinkle, burn, and scatter [the ashes of] the red cow, thus purifying us from the defilement of death.

The Priest exits the Holy Temple – the source of life, from where the world was created [the Foundation Stone] – and then makes his way directly eastward to the place that manifests, to some extent, the concept of death. Once he is there, on the Mt. of Olives, he turns around, with his back towards the desolation of the desert, and his face towards the source of life, the Holy Temple. He directs his gaze through the gate around the Temple Mount, and then through another gate leading into the Sanctuary, and then directly towards the interior of the Temple and the curtain of the Holy of Holies. The site of death is once again nourished from the site of life.

With this, the Priest expresses the Jewish principle that physical death is not final; only the body dies, but the soul continues to live on, and will ultimately reignite physical life again.

This is the reason that throughout the generations, Jews from all over the world wished to be buried on Mt. of Olives. They believed that it is from there that the deceased will begin living again. As the Prophet Zecharia says, after the Mt. of Olives splits, "living [fresh] water will emerge from Jerusalem" to give life to the world.

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