“The Excesses of Rationality”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

One of the most common issues raised when analyzing a Torah text is the question of juxtaposition: why a particular parasha precedes or follows another parasha. Although there is an ongoing debate among biblical commentators regarding whether the Torah narrative is written in chronological order, the fact that a particular Torah portion is contiguous to a previous or a later portion of the Torah is always regarded as having more than just a passing significance.

This week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, focuses on the seemingly obtuse statute of the Red Heifer, whose ashes were used to purify those who were contaminated. The scriptural portion of the Red Heifer and its challenging details are surrounded by two dynamic stories. It is preceded by the story of Korach and is followed by the story of Bilaam. And yet, the exceedingly legalistic portion of the Red Heifer and its minute regulations play a key role in understanding the issues raised in parashat Korach.

In Numbers 19:2, we read: “Zoat chukat HaTorah ah’sher tzee’vah Hashem lay’mor,” this is the statute of the Torah that G-d commanded, saying: Speak unto the Children of Israel, that they take unto you a Red Heifer.

In the Torah text, the law of the Red Heifer specifically follows the story of Korach’s rebellion to serve as a response to the challenge of Korach and his cohorts. Korach’s rebellion was predicated on his claim (Numbers 16:3) that the entire community of Israel is holy, since G-d dwells among them all. If this is true, how did Moses and Aaron arbitrarily arrogate for themselves the exclusive authority over the congregation of G-d? Korach, in effect, argues that ultimate authority is not vested in Moses and Aaron, but rather in the people themselves.

Korach cries out, seemingly in the name of fairness and democracy, that it is not the law of Moses from Sinai that should determine the opinions or actions of the people, but rather the other way around. The democratic elements are the true source of authority that endow the people and their actions with power.

This “power to the people” attitude is reflected boldly in Korach’s arguments with Moses as recorded in Midrash Tanchuma:

1. Does a tallit that is entirely blue (techelet) require tzitzit (fringes), or is it exempt from tzitzit?
2. Does a house full of Torah scrolls require a mezuzah, or is a mezuzah unnecessary?

Korach argues for the lenient position in both these cases. An entirely blue tallit does not require tzitzit, and a house full of Torah scrolls does not require a mezuzah. Invoking an eminently logical a fortiori argument (Kal v’chomer), Korach argues that if a scroll (in a mezuzah), with only two paragraphs of Torah, fulfills the mitzvah of mezuzah, shouldn’t a room filled with Torah scrolls, each of which contains 275 paragraphs of Torah, fulfill the requirement? If a single blue thread fulfills the mitzvah of tzitzit, should not an entirely blue tallit fulfill the mitzvah as well?

According to Korach, human logic always prevails. Korach is certain that the rational processes are the ultimate determinant of right and wrong. Since the laws handed down from Moses and Sinai have no internal logic, they must be summarily rejected.

It is for that very reason that parashat Chukat follows parashat Korach.

The Torah, in Numbers 19:2, declares: “Zoat chukat HaTorah,” This is the statute of the Torah! There is no logic to the laws of the Red Heifer. Reason is of little value when it comes to this irrational ritual. The Red Heifer comes to confirm to Korach and all his fellow rationalists that the ultimate authority is the law of Moses and Sinai, not mortal logic!

The faith of Moses and Israel is not predicated on the opinion of the community and the nation, but rather on the dictates of Torah. While there are other illogical “statutes” in the Torah such as shatnez (the forbidden mixture of wool and linen in a garment), the forbidden seed mixtures, and the prohibition of mixing milk and meat, no single statute is more obtuse, more irrational, than the law of the Red Heifer. Not only does this statute have no rational basis, it is a statute that is essentially predicated on internal conflict. At the same time that the Red Heifer purifies, it contaminates!

While Judaism in general is a most rational and logical faith, true believers must eventually conclude that there are certain aspects of the religion that one cannot rationally fathom or master. It is this leap of faith, which a believer must make, and this doubt, which we must all overcome, for which we are ultimately rewarded.

May you be blessed.