“It is a Decree Before Me–-You Have No Right to Question It!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we encounter one of the most enigmatic laws of the Torah–the law of the Parah Adumah– “Red Heifer,” the red cow. The waters of the Red Heifer had a special ability to purify those who had become ritually impure by coming into contact with a Jewish corpse.

In Numbers 19:2, God tells Moses and Aaron, “Zoht choo’kaht haTorah…v’yik’chu ay’leh’cha phara ah’doo’mah,” This is the decree (statute) of the Torah…Command the people of Israel to take a pure, unblemished red heifer that has never worked. The heifer is to be taken out of the camp and slaughtered, and, after a special ritual of sprinkling its blood, the heifer is burnt. A piece of cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread is then thrown into the flames of the burning cow.

Another priest must then gather the ashes of the cow outside the camp and create a mixture of ashes and holy water that is to be used to sprinkle those who are impure from contamination with death. The impure person is to be sprinkled on the third day and on the seventh day, and, on the night of the eighth day, the person goes to the mikveh and is declared clean.

The great enigma of the Red Heifer is that those who were impure would be sprinkled with its waters and become clean (Chukat-Balak 5762-2002), while those who came in contact with the Red Heifer during its preparation, and those who sprinkled others with its waters, would be rendered unclean.

The Torah’s use of the Hebrew word “Chukah,” which means decree or statute, underscores the apparent density and incomprehensibility of this decree.

Rashi explains that the word Chukah is specifically chosen in this context to provide the People of Israel with a response when the Accuser (Satan) and the nations of the world attack Israel by saying, “What is this commandment?” “What reason is there for it?” The People of Israel may now reply that Scripture purposely wrote “Chukah” to imply that the law of the Red Heifer is a Divine decree from before G-d that He has issued, and mortals do not have the right to reflect on it or to question it!

Even the wisest of all men, King Solomon, could not comprehend the irrationality of the law of the Red Heifer. Referring to the complexity of the law of the Red Heifer, King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes 7:23, “I said I would be wise, but it is far from me.” It was beyond his intellectual grasp.

As if things were not complicated enough, despite boldly declaring the irrationality and incomprehensibility of the laws of the Red Heifer, Rashi also suggests that the law may indeed have a rational component.

In an unusual editorial twist at the end of chapter 19, Rashi offers an alternative Midrashic explanation for the Red Heifer. After announcing that he has presented the Halachic legal interpretation of the Red Heifer, Rashi now states that he will quote from the treatise of Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan (Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan held the position of Rosh Yeshiva in Marbon, Provence, in Southern France in the 11th century). Rashi proceeds to explain that just as the people removed their golden rings from their own possessions to donate to the Golden Calf, they must now bring a cow from their own possessions for atonement. This, declares Rashi, may be compared to a son of a maidservant who soiled the palace of a king. They said, “Let his mother come and wipe away the excrement.” Similarly, let the (mother) cow come and atone for the [sin of the Golden] Calf.

How odd! After warning all to dare not rationalize the laws of the Red Heifer, Rashi himself cites the Midrash of Reb Moshe HaDarshan in an attempt to explain the conundrum.

I would like to suggest that this unusual departure from Rashi’s standard methodology teaches a powerful and important principle of Jewish faith and theology. Among the Catholics, there is an ancient principle, attributed to the 2nd century Christian theologian Tertullian (c.160-225 CE), which declares, “Credo quia absurdum,” I believe because it is absurd! The Christian Fathers believed that a special reward awaits those who accept faith blindly, without questioning.

What about Judaism? Do Jews believe in blind faith? It seems that, at least according to Rashi’s first explanation of the laws of the Red Heifer, there are irrational beliefs, practices and rituals in Judaism, which Jews are forbidden to question.

And yet, Rashi later proceeds to offer up a suggested rationale. Perhaps, through this added explanation, Rashi wishes to inform us that there are rationales to all the laws, but, at times, they are beyond the ken of human understanding.

The vital, fundamental theological principle implied in this lesson is that G-d would never ask mortals to do anything irrational or immoral. While G-d’s demands may, at times, appear to us to be irrational or immoral, they certainly are not immoral in G-d’s eyes. Everything has its ultimate rationale.

Judaism, in effect, posits that it is critically important for Jews to wrestle and struggle in order to uncover the rationale for all mitzvot, so that the meanings of the mitzvot will be personalized, rather than remain abstract and foreign. In truth, every Jew needs to find his/her own personal meanings for the performance of mitzvot. That is why the reasons for mitzvot are not given in the Torah. This enables those who perform them to personalize the mitzvot and find their own internal rationales that speak directly to them. These personal meanings may not speak to others or to the rabbis, but they should speak to every serious practicing Jew.

This is the secret of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. It represents a most enlightened approach to faith and belief. How fortunate we are to be the beneficiaries of this incredible faith system.

May you be blessed.