from the heart of jerusalem

Chukat: The intertwining of life and death


There are so many things in life that are impossible to understand. Yet every now and then, we are afforded 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 and our need to understand?

This week’s parsha, Chukat, provides the ultimate example of that which is impossible to comprehend: the parah aduma (Bamidbar 19:1-2). Somehow, this mitzvah 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 is by nature impossible to comprehend, and therefore one should not, perhaps even may not, attempt to fathom it. It is G-d’s decree.

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, he must undergo the ritual of the parah aduma, the red heifer. Paradoxically, while the ashes of the parah aduma purify the person who is impure, they also cause the pure person who gathers the ashes to become impure!

It is this incomprehensible phenomenon, that the parah aduma purifies the impure while contaminating the pure, that causes the Talmud to declare that even King Shlomo 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: “It is a chok, a decree from before Me, 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:  “Even though all the chukim in the Torah are decrees … it is worthy to explore them, and everything to which you can assign a reason, give to it a reason” (Hilchot Temurah 4:13).

So which is it? Should we be attempting to understand that which Hashem asks of us, or are we perhaps better off relying on pure faith?

It is interesting to note that this week’s portion is actually the bridge between the first generation of Jews who left Egypt, and the second generation, born largely in the desert, who are about to enter the land of Israel. In this week’s portion, both Miriam and Aaron die (20:1; 22-29), and in the infamous incident at Mei Merivah, Hashem decrees that Moshe too, will not enter the land.

As such, it is strange that the laws regarding a person who becomes impure through contact with death are only mentioned now, on the eve of entering the land of Israel. Indeed, the Talmud suggests (Gittin 60a) that this mitzvah was given nearly forty years earlier, and yet the Torah chooses to place it here!

In fact, the theme of Chukat is the quintessential experience we can never comprehend: death.

It’s about coming into contact with death, the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, the decree of Moshe’s approaching death. The verses even share with us some of the wanderings of the forty years in the desert, during which the entire generation of Egypt dies out as well. Ultimately, there is no portion more fitting for a mitzvah we cannot understand as Chukat, which is all about death, the ultimate mystery. It is similarly no accident that this week we encounter the concept of the righteous who suffer, when the three leaders of the Jewish people (Moshe, Aaron, and Miriam) are not allowed to enter the land.

The Jewish people here begin the transition from life in the desert, where everything was clear, to the entering the land of Israel, where the great questions of life abound. 

Understanding anything is comprised of three things: its reason, its purpose, and the implications we draw for ourselves.

It would be absurd to imagine that we can ascertain the reason for a mitzvah. A reason is essentially causation; something caused something else. But G-d is not caused to do or command anything; G-d is the cause. If the Torah comes from G-d, the mitzvot cannot have a cause; they are the cause. Thus, we can only consider the purpose and/or implications of a given mitzvah

Sometimes, Hashem allows us to tap into the purpose of a mitzvah, either by stating it explicitly in the Torah, as in Shabbat, or by creating us with the faculty to hone in on what a particular mitzvah accomplishes for both individuals and the larger society. 

But sometimes, we are not privy to the purpose of a mitzvah, and this may be what chukim are about. The purpose of fulfilling such a mitzvah, and how the world changes as a result, may be beyond our grasp, but this does not mean we cannot consider its implications.

By definition, the lessons I glean from a closer examination of anything in life will inevitably make it more meaningful and further study may cause me to reassess my understanding.

This would seem to be the Torah’s approach to all of life’s paradoxes and mysteries, death chief amongst them. To imagine that we as limited human beings could ever understand death and human suffering would be supreme arrogance. Yet the process of grappling with the challenge of death, and attempting to learn from the process, can be a valuable one, within these parameters.

Tumah, often translated as “impurity,” represents contact with death. Every instance of tumah in the Torah is the result of it, be it a dead lizard (a sheretz), or the loss of potential life after the breakdown of the uterine lining (niddah). And taharah, purity, which comes after immersion in a ritual bath full of water that represents life, is the reemergence of the individual into the mainstream. 

This, then, is the paradox of the red heifer — the intertwining of life and death, and the impossibility of understanding why it so often seems that the pure become impure (the righteous suffer) and the impure become pure.

Perhaps this was why King Shlomo viewed this as the ultimate mystery, because we are not meant to understand the purpose of experiences beyond our comprehension, such as death. And yet King Shlomo does try, because we are, as the Rambam suggests, meant to try. We can at least draw implications from even these most difficult mitzvot. 

We live in a world full of mysteries, with realities impossible to comprehend. But the decision is in each of our hands to find meaning in every moment and every piece of every mitzvah, and it will be the determining factor between grabbing life and being reborn every minute, or losing life and dying day by day, one slow second at a time.

A version of this column originally appeared in 2012.