“This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke has been laid (Numbers 19:2).” This is the commandment of the red heifer, one of the commandments that we are not able to fulfill today. In recent memory, no such unblemished cow has been found, and there are many people who are actively searching for one, including trying to breed one. The heifer is to be taken by Eleazar the kohen to be slaughtered, and afterwards, he will take its blood and sprinkle it in front of the Tent of Meeting, and then burn the cow. This is clearly an important sacrifice, warranting its own description, but it’s not quite clear to me when and why this particular sacrifice would be made. “A ritually clean person shall gather the cow’s ashes and place them outside the camp in a clean place, and it shall be as a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water, for cleansing (Numbers 19:9).”
Next, we learn a little about death. “Anyone touching the corpse of a human soul shall become unclean for seven days (Numbers 19:11).” The uncleanness of death remains on a person until he sprinkles himself with water, and until that time, he cannot enter the Temple out of fear of defiling it. Today, after interacting with the dead through attending funerals, we continue an approximation of this tradition by ritually washing our hands after being in cemeteries. Even though the full commandment can no longer be followed without the Temple, through these small gestures we recognize what was.