Parshat Chukat תשפ”ב 

This week’s Torah reading is Chukat (that word, in the construct state, has the literal translation of “the edict of”). The portion begins with the words, זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה – This is the edictחק) -chok) of the Torah, implying that it is the ultimate edict of all of the Torah’s edicts. 

What defines a חק, chok – an edict?

            The Torah contains three types of commandments. The Passover Haggadah’s wise son famously refers to them in his 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 necessarily have to enact these types of rules to function properly. 

חקים – Edicts, laws that we neither understand nor grasp their rationale. 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 wise 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. As humans, 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 edict of the Red Heifer. 

People, objects, food, or drink are either spiritually pure -טהור  (tahor)-  or spiritually impure – טמא (tamei). Depending on the source of the impurity, spiritually impure things have different levels of intensity to their 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  – tumah – spiritual uncleanliness, is a dead Jewish body, referred to as אבי אבות הטומאה ,  the greatest source ofטומאה . Just being under the same roof with a dead Jewish body makes one טמא – tamei. This intense type of tumah cannot be removed through immersing in a mikvah, but only through sprinkling the ashes of a red heifer. After slaughtering the red heifer (whose hairs must all be red—even two hairs of another color disqualify it), and burning it 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 are 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. Through this process, the person becomes tahoronce again. 

Anybody who has ever attended a funeral and was in the same room with the deceased is tamei. Today, this spiritual impurity has no practical ramifications because the only place one is not permitted to go with this spiritual impurity is the Holy Temple, which we no longer have. However, this does teach us that even today nobody should enter the Temple mount, because the place where the Temple stood remains holy, and since we are all tamei, it is like entering the Holy Temple. 

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! Why is the red heifer called “the חק of the Torah?” How is it any moreillogical than the others?

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, become tamei through participating in the process! That’s the mystery. How can the very same ashes accomplish two opposite results? An analogy might be made to a chemical that removes purple stains from cloth but turns everything else that it touches purple!

This result defies understanding. Perhaps a very wise person could figure it out, however, the Midrash informs us that the wisest of all men, King Solomon himself, could not grasp its reasoning. In the book of Ecclesiastes 7:23 he declared about this very mitzvah, 

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. 

Although even King Solomon could not fathom the depths of this mitzvah, there is, nonetheless, a deep and important lesson that we can take from it. 

The ashes of the burned heifer 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 ashesעפר – earth, rather than ashes (אפר). Although earth and ashes have much in common, they are really opposites. 

Ashes are the remains of something that once was, but is no more. The most valuable, the most elaborate, the most intricate and exquisite of items, when consumed by fire becomes useless ash. Do you remember the World Trade Centers? Those towering buildings represented millions of hours of labor, $900 million dollars’ worth of material (in 1972 dollars) 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 and earthenware vessels, which are helpful for cooking and eating.  

So why would the Torah use the word עפר (earth), instead of the more correct word for useless ash- אפר, which is what remains after burning the heifer? They are complete opposites. Ash is about the past and soil is all about the future. 

Our Sages teach us that there is a profound lesson hidden 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 comprise a manifestation of the unique meaning of each letter when joined with the other letters of the word. For example, the word for eye ( עין )  is just what it is, because that is what emerges 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 letter combinations, 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 evidences a word that was spoken to bring it into being. Therefore, in essence, every item is a reality because of the spoken word, the דבור  that brought it into existence. 

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

The word טהור suggests transparency and clarity; being able to see without obstruction. The word טיהראmeans afternoon, when everything is bright and clear. 

The word טמא (spiritually impure) beginning with the two letters טמ expresses the exact opposite concept. This combination describes 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. 

These two concepts affect a person’s spiritual growth. When the path to Hashem is clear and transparent, it is easy to follow and not become lost. But when the path is obscured and clouded with doubts and questions, it provides a most difficult and challenging one to follow. 

Analyzing what bringsטומאה   (tumah – spiritual impurity) points to an association with death. A dead rodent, a dead animal, and the most potent source, a dead Jewish body, all are sources of tumah. In the context of טומאה  (spiritual impurity)- being obstructive to clear vision, 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 does there have to be death in the first place? Why do innocent children free of any wrongdoing die? Why do holy and righteous people die young? Even when a person dies at a ripe old age, why should he work his whole life to build his fortune, only to die and leave it behind him for others? What about the Holocaust, where so many died such horrific deaths? Such daunting questions could leave a person with a doubt about Hashem’s existence, or at least present a confused idea of Him. The influence of tumah can lead us to believe that the Universe has no Master, and that this material world is all that there is. 

Here lies the red heifer’s secret. Just as its ashes transform a טמא  – tomei to a טהור  tahor and aטהור  tahorinto a  tamei טמא, so, too, it can transform useless ashes symbolizing a spent past into fertile earth, full of promise for a bright future. 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 – living waters.

A living spring is one that never dries up; it flows forever. This represents life that flows forever from אלקים חיים , the Living Hashem, who is the Source of all life and is Eternal. But if life is never ending, what then is death? 

Death constitutes the end of the body in which the soul was housed. The soul, however, which is a part of Hashem, is eternal, and continues to live in the next world. There it reaps the reward for the life that it led in this world. That is how life is never ending.

Those who deal with the red heifer’s ashes, see only the remnants of a fiery red animal, powerful and full of life, transformed into useless ash. They see only questions and doubts. Why kill a perfect animal in the prime of its life? Why turn it into spent ash instead of benefiting from its meat? Why such waste? These questions render them tamei, with muddied vision, and obstructions in the path of their commitment to Hashem. 

But when the ashes are mixed withמים חיים  – living waters, the symbol of eternal life, they create clarity and some understanding as to why a person may die and leave this world in the prime of his life. This is not the end! On the contrary. This is the beginning of a new and bright future. The soul is commencing its eternal life in the world to come where it will bask in the eternal bliss of Hashem’s love. 

Every soul comes to this world with a specific mission to complete. The soul is endowed with all of the talents and aptitudes it will require to achieve its mission. The greater the mission, the more talented and gifted the person with that soul will be. Each soul is also allotted sufficient time to accomplish what it was sent here to accomplish. Hence, since the length of one’s life is cut to the size of his mission, and one doesn’t know the size of his mission, one also never knows how much time he has to live on this earth. (There is no time to waste!) One thing is crystal clear: the soul was only sent here for a short time and will return to its Maker when it has finished its stay on earth. 

All the bitter and difficult challenges that Hashem sends a person during his lifetime are all tailor made to allow that particular soul to achieve the greatest possible good in the world to come. Hashem knows exactly the soul’s capabilities and will never give it more than it can handle. If we find ourselves confronted with a challenge, it was sent for our good, to increase our reward in the world to come, and we surely have the competence to deal with it appropriately. We sometimes witness how those undergoing the most difficult situations rise to the challenge and become stronger and more secure in their relationship with Hashem. They exude this confidence. Hashem loves us, and is with us, holding our hand and walking us through these trials. He has done this for our good, and we lovingly accept it. These holy people become our teachers, teaching us the proper perspective on how to accept everything that Hashem gives us with calm and grace.

Seeing things this way changes our whole perspective on death. Instead of seeing it as the end of an illustrious life, we see it as the beginning of an illustrious future, where the person who led that productive life is paid handsomely for the great life that he led. Instead of seeing the end of one’s life with all its accomplishments as ashes, a thing of the past, we see it as a source of great happiness and pleasure, as Hashem showers his soul with reward for all his accomplishments. 

It is so much deeper. 

One’s life is truly like עפר – earth, the future, not ashes. This is because during one’s lifetime he plants seeds and trees that take root and bear fruit long after he has left the world. These trees and seeds are the good deeds that he has done, which helped others and affected them positively bringing them closer to Hashem in some way. 

The seeds are Torah thoughts and ideas that one shares with others, inspiring them to live their lives in harmony with those ideals. The ideas take root in one’s mind and heart and become a positive influence on all areas of his life, helping him to grow stronger and achieve higher goals. With every positive act, the seed has born another fruit. 

The trees are the investments we make in our children, for example, who become firmly planted in Torah and its ways, and lead their lives accordingly. Since we have provided the foundations upon which they rest, we receive credit for every good deed that they do. When they pass these values on to their children, we will receive credit for that too, since we were also the source of that. 

There are many examples of this. One who sustains a poor person is credited for all his good deeds because it is he who has enabled that person to live to perform them. All who benefit from him will also bring merit to the benefactor, since he is the one behind it. 

One who supports a yeshiva receives credit for the Torah the children learn and continues to reap merit from all the growth that the children have experienced as a result of his support. As the children grow to be parents and teach their children, the merit increases. The ripple effect of his deeds is unending. The trees that he planted during his lifetime continue to bear fruit forever. 

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 labors. 

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. We will then have the time to sit back and savor every delicacy that 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 hassidimasked 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!” 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 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 die and be lost forever. 

In this sense, the morbid idea of death can inspire us to a better 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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