Chukas 5778

The mystery of the red heifer[1]

וידבר יקוק אל-משה ואל אהרן לאמר: זאת חקת התורה אשר-צוה יקוק לאמר דבר אל-בני ישראל ויחקו אליך פרה אדומה תמימה וגו’‏
Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying: “This is the decree of the Torah, that Hashem commanded to say: ‘Tell the Jewish people to take towards you a perfectly[2] red heifer’”[3]

The Torah teaches us[4] about the laws of spiritual impurity caused by contact with the dead. There is a single remedy for a person to purify themselves: the ashes of a perfectly red heifer. The Torah details its preparation, and how and when it is applied to a person. We are taught that this mitzvah is the prototypical chok, or decree, from Hashem. This category of mitzvos are those to which the underlying reasoning alludes us. What is the chok of the red heifer? All those who prepare and apply the ashes of the red heifer become spiritual impure, whereas the person who is treated with them becomes pure[5]. How could these two opposites coexist? This is something only[6] Moshe understood fully[7], until the End of Days when its secrets will be revealed to all[8]. For us now, it is viewed as a chok; something we have to accept and await the day when we will finally understand it[9]. One could ask a basic question on this idea: since the red heifer does in fact have an underlying reason, why is it eluded from us? Why reveal it only to Moshe, especially since it will eventually be explained to everyone[10]?

A possible explanation for why Hashem would withhold the underlying reasoning behind certain mitzvos is to engrain in us a certain way of thinking. As we perform certain mitzvos, we are often left wondering what the purpose behind them is. They at first glance, by our logic, appear unreasonable. Regardless, they’re our obligation to fulfill. It is the fulfillment of these mitzvos in particular which will help us when situations happen that we also can’t explain. Sometimes we have no understanding why Hashem acts the way He does. Why do bad things happen to good people[11]? Whatever the answer[12], we know it’s for the best[13]. Fulfilling these mitzvos engrains in us the idea that we don’t always understand everything[14]. It’s impossible at this stage to fully understand how Hashem operates[15].

The mitzvah of the red heifer is particularly appropriate for this inculcation[16]. Before the End of Days, death is the one constant. There are endless situations that involve interaction with the dead, causing a persistent need for spiritual purification. Even though we no longer have ashes from a red heifer, nor do we ensure that we are spiritually pure, this wasn’t always the case. When the Jews maintained purity, they had to be constantly involved with the manufacturing and application of the red heifer’s ashes. This paradox was continuously on their minds. This inculcated the lesson in their minds, that we can’t always understand why things happen the way they do.

This explains why at the End of Days the reasoning behind the mitzvos will be revealed to us. In those days, Hashem will be One and His name will be One[17]. Meaning[18], today we make different blessings upon experiencing good and bad events. Upon experiencing good events, we say: “Blessed are you, the One who is good and does good”. Upon experiencing bad events, we say: “Blessed are you, the true Judge”. However, in the future, we will only make one blessing, the one we make now on good events. To us, all events will be clearly good[19]. There will be no more confusion about why things are happening the way they are, as their deeper purpose will be revealed. Therefore, there will be no longer a reason to conceal the underlying reasoning behind any mitzvah. May that time come soon, speedily in our days.

Good Shabbos

[1] Based on Be’er Yosef to Numbers 19:1-2

[2] Based on Rashi to verse 2

[3] Numbers loc. cit.

[4] ibid Chapter 19

[5] Parah 4:4; Chullin 29b

[6] See Yismach Moshe to parshas Korach who believes Korach also understood the red heifer

[7] Ecclesiastes 7:23 teaches that even the greatest of sages, King Shlomo, wasn’t able to understand the red heifer (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3, Midrash Tanchumah Chukas § 6). See also Niddah 9a with Rashi

[8] Bamidbar Rabbah 19:6

[9] ibid § 1

[10] The Be’er Yosef adds: the Torah says (Deuteronomy 4:5-8) that the nations of the world will see our decrees and ordinances, and will realize that we are a wise and understanding nation. They will also see the wisdom of the decrees and ordinances themselves (see Rashi ad. loc.). If they were to ask us the reason behind the decrees, we wouldn’t be able to answer them. This won’t make us appear to be so wise and understanding. Hashem should give us the reasoning, so we can fulfill these verses properly

[11] This was Moshe’s question to Hashem (Berachos 7a, based on Exodus 33:13). The Be’er Yosef brings other sources in Tanach which are asking this question

[12] The problem with this answer is that it simply shifts the question. Why are the reasons behind some mitzvos hidden from us? To accept that bad things happen to good people. But still, why do bad things happen to good people? There are various approaches to this issue, but the Be’er Yosef doesn’t address it

[13] See Berachos 60b and Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 230:5

[14] The idea that actions can affect a person’s thought patterns is made famous by the Mesillas Yesharim at the end of Chapter 7. However, he was preceded by Sefer HaChinuch, whose thesis behind many mitzvos is that they are actions whose aim is to engrain an idea in the Jewish people’s heads (see for example, Mitzvah 16). Rambam to Avos 3:15 is an even earlier source for this principle

[15] The Be’er Yosef uses this approach to explain a fascinating story in Menachos 29b. Moshe when he went up to Heaven to receive the Torah was shown by Hashem a vision of Rabbi Akiva’s future academy. Moshe was unable to understand the lecture, and was disheartened. A student asked Rabbi Akiva how a certain law could be true (see Rashi ad. loc.), and Rabbi Akiva responded that the reason was beyond us, but it’s a tradition accepted from Moshe at Sinai. Hearing this, Moshe was pacified. Moshe asked Hashem what this individual’s reward was, and Hashem showed him that the Romans flayed the skin off his body while he was alive. Moshe asked Hashem how this was just, and Hashem said that it’s not something that can be questioned. The Be’er Yosef explains that Moshe was pacified when he realized that not everything in the Torah has a reason that is revealed to us. So too, Moshe was pacified when he realized that we can’t understanding everything Hashem does. See there for a full explanation

[16] The Be’er Yosef also explains why specifically Eliezer was involved in the preparation of the red heifer, and not Aharon his father, considering future red heifers can (or must) be prepared by the Kohen Gadol (see Yoma 42b). Aharon, the day before the first red heifer was prepared, had lost both of his sons (see Leviticus Chapter 10 and Instead of questioning how Hashem could do such a thing, he accepted this fate with tremendous endurance. We see that Aharon had already inculcated the lesson of the red heifer within himself. He didn’t need to be taught that Hashem’s ways are beyond us. Therefore, his son prepared it

[17] Zachariah 14:9

[18] Pesachim 50a

[19] Rashi ad. loc.