Parshat Chukat


The name of this week’s Torah reading is Chukat. A חק  is an edict, so the word חקת means “the edict of” and in context “This is the edict of the Torah.”

The Torah continues to detail the laws of the Red Heifer which, we are being told, is the ultimate חק  in the Torah.

There are three types of commandments in the Torah. We read about them in the Haggadah of Pesach in the question of the wise son.

חָכָם מָה הוּא אוֹמֵר. מָה הָעֵדוֹת וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְדֹוָד אֱלֹדינוּ אֶתְכֶם.

The wise son, what does he say? What are the testimonials, the edicts, and the laws which Hashem your God has commanded you? Since he is able to distinguish between the different types of laws in the Torah, we see he is the wise son.

עדות – Testimonials are mitzvot like eating matzah on Pesach, or sitting in a sukkah on Sukkot. These types of mitzvot testify to the fact that the Jewish people ate matzah in Egypt and that Hashem protected them in the desert with the clouds of glory. (What are some other עדות  that you can think of?)

משפטים  – Laws which make perfect sense to the human mind. Such as, do not murder do not steal, paying for damages that one has inflicted on others etc.

חקים – Edicts from Hashem that we do not understand. Such as not shaving with a razor, or not shaving off the corners of our heads – having payot (ear locks).

So, a חק  is an edict, a law without obvious logic or understanding to it. Of course, Hashem has a reason for every single mitzvah in the Torah, but we are at a loss to understand Hashem’s reasoning.

So what is so daunting about this mitzvah?

In the Torah, there are laws of the spiritually pure and spiritually impure. The Torah words for these two concepts are טהור  (tahor – spiritually pure) and טמא (tamei – spiritually impure). Objects, food, drink, and people can all be either טמא  or טהור . There are different degrees of intensity in both areas as well. The more intense the level of  טומאה  the more difficult it is to become pure from it.

For example, one way that a person may become טמא  is through touching a dead rodent. The method through which he would become טהור  is to immerse in a mikva.

The most intense type of טומאה  is that of a dead human body. A dead body is called אבי אבות הטומאה   the granddaddy of טומאה . Anyone who touches a dead body, or is even in the same room with a corpse, becomes טמא . But this type of טומאה  does not come off in a mikvah. This is where the red heifer comes in. After ritual slaughter, the red heifer is burned outside of the camp until it has turned completely into ash. The ashes are mixed with water from a natural spring and then the Cohen sprinkles the mixture on the טמא  person on the 3rd and 7th day after he became טמא . After the sprinkling of the seventh day, he would immerse in a mikvah, and when the sun set, he would be טהור.

Since we do not have the purification process of the red heifer any more, we are all טמא from a dead body if we ever attended a funeral where the deceased was in the room. There is no practical difference in this, since the only place it is relevant is in the Holy Temple. When one was in a state of טומאה he was not permitted to enter the Holy Temple. Since, unfortunately, we do not have the Holy Temple, being טמא  has no impact on us at all.

Recently, a red heifer was born to a Jewish farmer in New Jersey, the son of Holocaust survivors. Rabbis from Lakewood, NJ and New York went to inspect it and see if in fact it was a kosher red heifer. In order to be kosher for use, it can not have even two hairs that are not red; two white, black or brown hairs will disqualify it. The rabbis all found it to be acceptable. This created a great deal of excitement, since the charge of the Mashiach is to build the Holy Temple, the gift of a red heifer was understood to be the pre-curser to the Mashiach and the third Holy Temple, when we will once again need the ashes of the red heifer to purify us from the טומאה  of a dead body. Unfortunately, it became pregnant and that disqualified it.

So, what is so perplexing about the mitzvah of the red heifer? All the laws of טמא   and טהור  are a חק! What qualifies the red heifer as the חק of the Torah?

Our sages explain.  While the entire goal of the red heifer is to purify those who are ,טמא at the same time, all the people who are involved in the preparation of the ashes, who must all be טהור   in order to qualify, all become טמא in the process. This is truly a mystery! How can the very same ashes accomplish two opposite things?

Maybe if we were wiser, we could figure it out. However, the Midrash tells us that this isn’t the case. The wisest of all men King Solomon himself in the book of Ecclesiastes declared about this very mitzvah,


(1) ספר קהלת פרק ז

כָּל זֹה נִסִּיתִי בַחָכְמָה אָמַרְתִּי אֶחְכָּמָה וְהִיא רְחוֹקָה מִמֶּנִּי

As much as I have tried, and As wise as I am, this one (referring to the red heifer) is beyond me.

The Midrash also tells us that Hashem revealed the reasoning behind this mitzvah to only one person, Moshe Rabbeinu. We see from all of this that this mitzvah is intended to defy our understanding. We are not supposed to understand it!

What could be the meaning of that? Our sages give us a clue in the following midrash.


(1) מדרש רבה במדבר – פרשה יט פסקה ח

ומפני מה כל הקרבנות זכרים וזו נקבה א”ר איבו משל לבן שפחה שטינף פלטין של מלך אמר המלך תבא אמו ותקנח את הצואה כך אמר הקב”ה תבא פרה ותכפר על מעשה העגל

Why are all the other sacrifices male animals and this one, the red heifer, is female? Rabbi Aibo answered: It’s like when the son of one of the maidservants in the king’s palace, relieved himself on the palace floor. The king said, “Call his mother and have her clean up her son’s mess!” Similarly, Hashem said, “let the mother cow, the red heifer, come and clean up the mess her son, the golden calf, made. In other words, there is a component in the red heifer that is an atonement for the sin of the golden calf. What is that?

I once heard the following explanation from Harav Elya Svei Ob”m.

Before going up Mount Sinai, Moshe told the Bnai Yisroel “I will return at dawn in forty days.” The people counted forty days, but Moshe hadn’t returned. Moshe must have joined the angels in heaven they concluded. He is not returning. We need a replacement.

When they approached Aharon with their request, Aharon told them that their calculations were off by one day. You see, he explained, when Moshe said he would be back in forty days, he meant forty full days, each day a twenty-four hour day. Since Moshe went up the mountain in the morning, that day could not count as day one; it was  the middle of a day which had started with sundown the previous night. Therefore, today is only the thirty ninth day and Moshe will be back tomorrow morning. Knowing this, Aharon’s goal in everything he told the people to do, was to stall them until the next morning at dawn when Moshe would show up, and indeed he did.

Unfortunately, the Bnai Yisroel would not accept the explanation of Aharon. They felt very confident in their ability to count to forty and their understanding of what Moshe meant when he said he would return in forty days. They would not even entertain the possibility that perhaps they had made a mistake in the calculation. “What don’t we understand about counting to 40, Aharon?” This overconfidence in their intellect was at the root of the sin of the golden calf. Their feeling that their understanding of the matter and calculations are infallible and unquestionable would not allow them to hear the truth from Aharon.

The antidote to this headiness is to have a mitzvah that defies understanding and to do it anyway. To sacrifice your mind on the altar of Hashem’s Torah. To do the mitzvah even though you don’t have the slightest clue what is behind it, or even if it seems contradictory to itself. To understand without a doubt that the human mind is absolutely incapable of fathoming the mind of Hashem. It is in this way that the red heifer, the mother cow, provides an atonement for the mess that her son the golden calf made.

This is one of the reasons we wear a kippah. It is to keep us humble and aware of the fact that there is something greater than us above our heads, Hashem. And as smart as we may be, we are just human beings, who are prone to mistakes and cannot understand everything.

Although Hashem has endowed the human being with amazing intellect, and deep wisdom, it is essential that we realize that Hashem is the source of all wisdom. We cannot possibly understand everything. Very often, this very flaw, thinking that we know everything, is the greatest impediment to one’s growth in Judaism.

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