Parshat Chukat תשפ 

This week’s Torah reading is the double portion of Chukat and Balak. This essay, however, discusses only Chukat, the literal translation of which is “the edict of,” and, in context, “This is the edictחק)  ) of the Torah.” The Torah then details the laws of the burning of the Red Heifer and the sprinkling of its ashes mixed with spring water, which, our Sages tell us, is the ultimate חק  in the Torah. But what is a חק, chok (or an edict for that matter)?

The Torah contains three types of commandments. In the Passover Haggadah the wise son refers to them in his sagacious question: 

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

What does the wise son say? What are the testimonials, the edicts, and the laws that Hashem your God has commanded you? 

עדות – Testimonials, are mitzvot like eating matzah on Pesach, or sitting in a sukkah on Sukkot. This type of mitzva is a testimonial because it testifies to historical events such as the Jewish people eating matzah in Egypt and being protected by the clouds of glory throughout their journey in the wilderness.

משפטים  – Laws that make logical sense to the human mind. For example, do not murder, do not steal, and pay the damages if you have damaged someone. A society would have to have these types of rules to function properly. 

חקים – Edicts, laws that we do not understand or grasp a rationale for. For example, do not shave with a razor, do not eat meat and dairy together, and do not wear clothing made of wool and linen together (“Shaatnez”).  

Indeed, we deduce that this son is wise from his ability to distinguish between the Torah’s different types of laws. 

Because Hashem Himself has given the חקים – edicts– we realize that there must be an important and profound reason for them. But being human, however, we are unable to fathom their depth or purpose. Our Sages teach us that Hashem revealed to Moshe all 50 levels of wisdom, and, hence, he alone was able to understand the rationale behind all of the Mitzvot, including, the edicts. 

The Torah describes the mitzvah to burn the Red Hefier and sprinkle its ashes to remove impurity contracted by contact with a dead body as its ultimate edict. Yet what is it about this mitzvah that is so difficult to understand that makes it the ultimate edict? 

People, objects, food, or drink are either spiritually pure -טהור   (tahor)-  or spiritually impure – טמא (tamei). As far as things that are spiritually impure, there are different levels of intensity to that impurity, the difference in degree stemming from the source of the impurity. The more intense the spiritual impurity, the more involved the process needed to remove it. 

For example, if a person became tamei through touching a dead rodent, he would simply immerse in a mikva-ritual bath to become tahor.

The most intense source of טומאה  – tumahspiritual uncleanliness, is a dead Jewish body, referred to as אבי אבות הטומאה ,  the most intense form ofטומאה . Just being under the same roof with a dead Jewish body makes one טמא – tamei. This intense type of tumah cannot be removed by a mikvah, but only through a sprinkling of a red heifer’s ashes. After slaughtering the red heifer (which must be perfectly red—even two hairs of another color disqualify it), it must be burned to ash outside of the camp. A piece of acacia wood, a crimson silk thread, and a few twigs of hyssop are thrown into the fire, the resulting ashes being then placed in a vessel and mixed with water from a natural spring. The Cohen dips a bundle of hyssop into the ashes and sprinkles some of the mixture on the tamei person on the 3rd and 7th day after he became tamei

In today’s world, anybody who has ever attended a funeral and was in the same room with the deceased is tamei. This spiritual impurity makes no practical difference because the only place one was not permitted to go in a state of spiritual impurity was the Holy Temple, which we no longer have. This moreover means that even today nobody should enter the Temple mount because the place where the Temple stood remains holy. 

About five years ago, a red heifer was born to a Jewish farmer, the son of Holocaust survivors, in New Jersey. Rabbis from New Jersey and New York inspected it to determine whether it was suitable for the mitzvah of the Red Heifer. The rabbis all found it to be acceptable, which created a great deal of excitement. Because the Mashiach’s task is to rebuild the Holy Temple, the confirmation of an authentic red heifer was understood to be the pre-curser to that event, when we will once again need the red heifer’s ashes to purify us from the tumah of a dead body. Unfortunately, the cow became pregnant, and thus became disqualified. 

But what is so perplexing about the mitzvah of the red heifer any more than any other of the Torah’s edicts? All the laws of tamei and tahor are a  חק – an edict! What qualifies the red heifer as the חק of the Torah? 

The answer is that the red heifer’s entire purpose is to purify those who are tamei, yet those involved in the preparation of its ashes, who must all be tahor to qualify, all become tamei by participating in the process! That’s the mystery! How can the very same ashes accomplish two opposite things? An analogy might be made to a chemical that removes purple stains from cloth but turns everything else that it touches purple!

Maybe if we were wiser, we could figure it out. The Midrash informs us, however, that this isn’t the case. The wisest of all men, King Solomon himself, in the book of Ecclesiastes (7:23) declared about this very mitzvah, 


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. 

We see from all of this that this mitzvah is intended to defy our understanding. We are not supposed to understand it! Even though even King Solomon could not fathom its depths, there is a very deep and important lesson that we can take from it. 

The ashes of the burned cow are mixed with water from a living spring and sprinkled on the tamei person. The Torah writes (Numbers 19:17): 

(יז) וְלָקְחוּ לַטָּמֵא מֵעֲפַר שְׂרֵפַת הַחַטָּאת וְנָתַן עָלָיו מַיִם חַיִּים אֶל כֶּלִי

17) And they will take for the tamei some of the earth (soil) of the burnt purification animal and put upon it living (spring) water in a vessel. 

The Torah peculiarly calls the cow’s burnt ashes, עפרearth. Although earth and ashes have much in common, they are really opposites. 

Ashes are the remains of something that was but is no more. The most valuable, the most elaborate, the most intricate and exquisite of items, when burned in a fire becomes useless ash. Do you remember the World Trade Center? Those towering buildings represented millions of hours of labor, $900 million dollars’ worth of material and wages, and took seven years to build, yet they were reduced to worthless ash in a matter of just a few hours. There is absolutely nothing you can build or create with ashes. Flakes of ash do not stick together, they just disintegrate.

Earth – soil, on the other hand, is the stuff of the future. It is the basis for life, as all living creatures derive their sustenance from what grows in the earth. Even livestock are considered גידולי קרקע  – grown in the ground, because they live from the food grown in the ground. Earth is also the most basic component for building. When mixed with water, it can be shaped into bricks and used to construct the most elaborate buildings. It is also used to make pottery, earthenware vessels, helpful for cooking and eating.  

Why would the Torah substitute the word for useless ash,אפר  , with the word for the essential element for life, עפר – earth?

There is a very deep and profound lesson here. 

In לשון הקודש  – the language of the holy writings (the Torah, Prophets and Writings – TaNaCh, different that modern Hebrew) every letter of the Alef bet has a specific and unique meaning. The words or names formed by the combinations of letters are actually a manifestation of the unique meaning of each letter when joined with the other letters of the word. For example, the word for eyeעין  – , is just what it is, because that is what comes forth from the three letters  ע-י-ן which join to form it. Something comparable would be a chemical formula. For example, the chemical formula for table salt is NaCl, sodium chloride. Salt is what it is because the two chemicals sodium and chloride combine to make it. 

Hashem created everything in the world by using different combinations of letters, each of which represents something different. This is why in lashon Hakodesh, the “name” for an item is a דבר, which comes from the word דבור  –speech. What is the connection between speech and an item? The answer is that every item is evidence to a word that was spoken to bring it into being. Therefore, in essence, every item is a reality because of the spoken word, דבור.

In Lashon Hakodesh, most verbs have a three-letter root word. The first two letters of the word create the concept’s basic meaning, while the last letter modifies that concept and changes its application somewhat. 

The word טמא (spiritually impure) begins with the two letters טמ. This combination expresses a concept of something hidden or blocked from sight.טמון  , for example, means hidden. טמם means buried. Hence, the concept of טמא is one of something spiritually obscured from sight. 

The word טהור on the other hand suggests transparency and clarity; being able to see without obstruction.  

One can easily understand how these two concepts would affect a person’s spiritual growth. When the path to Hashem is clear and transparent, it is easy to follow and not get lost. When, though, the path is obscured and clouded with doubts and questions, it provides a most difficult and challenging one to follow. 

An analysis of what brings טומאה  – tumah – spiritual impurity – points to an association with death. A dead rodent, a dead animal, and the most potent source, a dead Jewish body are examples of sources of tumah. In the context of טומאה  – spiritually impurity – being obstructive, it is easy to understand how death, especially of a person, could be the greatest obstruction and most daunting challenge to belief in Hashem. Why do children die? Why do the righteous suffer and die young? What about the Holocaust, where so many died such horrific deaths? Why does there have to be death in the first place? Why should a person work his whole life to build his fortune, only to die and leave it behind him?  Such daunting questions could leave a person with a doubt about Hashem’s existence altogether, or at least present a confused idea of Him. The influence of tumah is to lead us to believe that there is no Hashem, and that this world in front of us is all that there is. 

Enter the red heifer. Just as it transforms a טמא  to a טהור  and aטהור  to a טמא, it also transform inert ashes into fertile earth. How does this happen? The transition occurs when we place the ashes of the burned cow in a vessel with water from a live spring, מים חיים. The Torah is compared to water and it is the essence of life. 

(יז) וְלָקְחוּ לַטָּמֵא מֵעֲפַר שְׂרֵפַת הַחַטָּאת וְנָתַן עָלָיו מַיִם חַיִּים אֶל כֶּלִי

17) And they will take for theטמא  some of the earth of the burnt purification animal and put upon  it living (spring) water in a vessel. 

The Torah is the essence of life because Hashem used the Torah’s words to create this world, which means that all the Torah contains the secrets of the world and life, and that looking at life through the Torah’s lens  gives us perfect clarity. It  shows us how the very things that we thought obscure Hashem actually reveal Him and encourage us to pursue Him. How is that? 

The transformation occurs when one accepts the reality of a World to Come as the purpose for which we were placed here in this world. The Torah perspective on life in this world is, that it is but a passageway to the next world. Our job here is to prepare our fortunes for the world to come. 

The Midrash in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes 1:34) says:

שהעולם שבאת ממנו דומה ליבשה והעוה”ז דומה לים. ואם אין אדם מתקן לו ביבשה, מה יאכל בים? ואין אתה יודע שהעוה”ז דומה למדבר ועולם שבאת ממנו דומה ליישוב אם אין אדם מתקן לו מן היישוב מה יאכל במדבר

This world is like land, and the world to come is like the sea. If you don’t load your boat when it is at the shore, you will have nothing to live on when you go out to sea. And this world is like the city, and the world to come is like the desert. If you don’t pack your provisions of food and drink to take with you on your trip through the desert, you will have nothing to sustain you on the trip. 

If we view this world as all that there is, life is full of questions. What is so great about life? Animals are all created with the instincts they need to feed themselves, but I must learn a vocation or I will starve. What vocation should I choose? Will I be successful? Even if I am successful and earn a good living, there are no guaranties. I will still have to struggle to maintain my status. Many have been fabulously wealthy only to lose everything. What if I become one of those? Life is full of anguish and worry. I was born to die, and every minute that I live I get closer to my death. Why celebrate my birthday? It’s depressing to think that I am one year closer to my end. And, after it’s all over, all of the hardship and anguish only served to entitle others to the products of my hard work. 

But if this world is merely the place where we prepare for our eternal trip to the world to come, we will enjoy everything that we put in the boat while on our trip across the ocean. Then, we will have the time to sit back and savor every delicacy we packed for our journey. In this scenario, every minute of life is another opportunity to sock away more and more delicacies to be enjoyed later, on our journey.  The more difficult the challenges in one’s life, the greater the reward in the world to come for staying the course and not succumbing to the physical view of things and bearing in mind that this is all a test so I can earn more reward in the world to come. It is unimaginable the amount of reward someone who went through the Holocaust and maintained his faith and trust in Hashem is going to receive. 

When the late Satmar Rebbe, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979) was about to pass away, one of his hassidim asked him, “Rebbe, who will we go to for blessings after you pass away?” The Rebbe responded, “When you go to shul in the morning and see a man roll up his sleeve to put on his tefillin, and you see a number inscribed on his arm, ask him for a blessing! His blessing will be more powerful than mine!”

Even those who perished solely for the crime of being Jewish will merit the highest and holiest place in the world to come. 

Children who die have souls that have completed their missions in this world and need not go through life’s trials and challenges. Their souls are in the world to come enjoying their just reward for the short life they lived. 

From this perspective, life is one great treasure hunt, with the most valuable treasures waiting to be found and added to our growing collection. How exciting! Every moment of life can bring us eternal life in the world to come. We will relive that moment when we receive the reward for having used it to perform a mitzvah or learn Torah. If we fail to use it, it will just die and be lost forever. 

In this sense, the morbid idea of death can inspire us to a better life and an eternal life because it teaches us that this life not the goal, the world to come is. The טומאה  – cloudiness of the path, has become clarified – טהור. We have indeed transformed the ashes of the burned cow into the earth that gives life to the future! 

Thinking about these ideas should fill us with the greatest joy and happiness. Realizing that every moment of life is another opportunity to collect yet another treasure for our future life in the world to come gives purpose and meaning to everything that we do. We need to thank Hashem for this gift every moment of every day. 


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