Rabbi Ronen Neuwirth
Former Central Shaliach of Bnei Akiva North America
Sometimes There Are No Answers
Parshat Chukat opens up with the laws pertaining to the Red Heifer, generally considered one of the most obtuse segments in the entire Torah. It is considered the quintessential “chok’, or law, not given over to human comprehension, since it contains internal contradictions: the heifer whose ashes purify a person from the most serious form of contamination – death – simultaneously and paradoxically contaminates the kohen who handles the ashes. Actually, the more one seeks to logically comprehend this mitzvah, the more he should expect disappointment. King Solomon, the wisest of all men, said regarding this mitzvah: “I thought I would become wise, yet it remains distant from me.” How, then, can we explain this mitzvah?
When the Torah speaks of “contamination” (tumah), it does not refer to some metaphysical or spiritual property, but to a defined status. When something remains distant from its destiny, it becomes contaminated (tamei). Purification (tahara) represents the act of returning an object to its original destiny and purpose in the world. A corpse contaminates because its purpose was to live. The exception to this rule is a kosher animal which was properly slaughtered, since it may be eaten after it dies and therefore does not contaminate in that state.
This principle holds true for all laws of contamination and purity, but especially for contamination by human corpse. Death implies distance from man’s original destiny. Man was originally designed for immortality, which he forfeited when he sinned by eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Thus, the Red Heifer somehow puts us back on our original trajectory by repairing the root of the problem, namely, by nullifying knowledge and eliminating our ability to comprehend. The original sin, the sin of Adam and Eve, stemmed from the desire to be like God, “knowing good and evil”. This arrogance destroyed Adam’s wholeness and caused his eviction from Eden and his forfeiture of immortality. Thus, a human corpse is the most primary of all forms of contamination (‘avi avot ha-tumah’); it represents the astounding dissonance between our lives and the ideal life, an eternal life in which the material and the spiritual are inextricably linked.
The mitzvah of the Red Heifer was designed to limit haughtiness. We often think, because of our abundance of intelligence, information, and education, that we understand everything and that nothing is new to us. This hubris is liable to lead to condescension, imperviousness to criticism, and, by default, to stagnation and lack of will to improve. The internal contradiction and irrationality of the Red Heifer are intended to lead even the most wise of men to the conclusion that there is wisdom beyond even his and that there are things that are beyond his comprehension.
This also explains why this mitzvah atones for the Sin of the Golden Calf, which stemmed from the state of euphoria that lingered after the revelation at Mount Sinai. The nation felt certain that it had already reached the heavens, that it understood everything, and therefore created a golden calf, the fruit of its imagination. The mitzvah of the Red Heifer reminds us that as great as we become, one mitzvah will always remain an upper limit, never given to our understanding.
The Red Heifer sends a message to the nation in general, but particularly to its leaders and executives. In order to succeed in a leadership role, on needs a bit of humility. Humility is the true key to leadership and greatness. The only leader ever able to understand the meaning of the Red Heifer was Moshe: “God said to Moshe: ‘I will reveal the meaning of the heifer to you.’” (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:4). Perhaps the reason is specifically because “Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than anyone else in the world…”