June 28, 2012
The paradox of the red heifer, the intertwining of life and death
There are so many things in life that are impossible to understand, and yet every now and then, we are afforded the opportunity to get a glimpse, as if through a momentary clearing of the fog, of what it’s all about. How important is it for us to comprehend all that we do? Where lies the balance between pure faith on the one hand, and our need to understand, on the other?
This week’s portion, Chukat, provides the ultimate example of that which is impossible to comprehend: the mitzvah of the red heifer. (Numbers 19:1-2)
Somehow, this mitzvah (commandment) is unique amongst all the laws of the Torah. And, it seems, what makes it so unique, is that it is impossible to understand.
Rashi, quoting the Midrash, explains that this law, by nature, is impossible to comprehend, and therefore one should not (perhaps even may not) attempt to fathom it; it is G-d’s decree and ours is simply to accept it and fulfill it as best we can.
In truth, the nature of this particular mitzvah is indeed difficult to understand, even bordering on the bizarre.
When a person comes into contact with a dead body, he is rendered “Tamei,” or spiritually contaminated. In order to again achieve a state of ritual purity (to be “Tahor,” or pure), he must undergo the ritual of the red heifer known as the Parah Aduma.
A Parah Aduma is a completely red cow (a heifer) that has never been used for labor of any kind, which is a very rare find.
Paradoxically, while the ashes of the Parah Aduma purify the person who is impure, they also cause the pure person (the Tahor who gathers the ashes in preparation) to become impure!
It is this incomprehensible phenomenon, that the Parah Aduma purifies the impure, while at the same time contaminating the pure, that causes the Talmud to declare that even King Solomon could not fathom the mitzvah of the Parah Aduma.
Rashi seems to suggest that we are not allowed to attempt an understanding of this type of Mitzvah:
“…The Torah writes that it is a “Chok”: “It is a decree from before Me (G-d), and you have no right to ponder it.” (Rashi Bamidbar 19:2)
Maimonides on the other hand, openly espouses the value of attempting to understand the unfathomable: