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A Strange Commandment

A Strange Commandment


This parshah talks about a very strange commandment.

I say "strange," because there are certain details of the commandment to remove defilement by sprinkling the ashes of the red heifer that are unlike any other commandment in the Torah. The commandment of the red heifer is totally irrational -- there is no rhyme or reason by which a person can figure out how this procedure makes any sense. Nevertheless, the Torah describes an exact procedure that a person must undergo if he wishes to rid himself of the impurity which is brought about by contact with a dead body.

Let's say a person who lived in biblical times was sitting in his tent when suddenly someone in that tent passed away. That person, because he was in the same tent at the moment of the other person's death, has contracted the strongest possible type of impurity -- the impurity of actual death.

Somebody who is at a funeral, or has to carry the dead body from the house in which the person died to the cemetery, or buries the person (this is one of the greatest commandments, to bring a Jewish body to a Jewish burial) becomes extremely impure. Why do I say "extremely"? Because there are levels in impurity. Contact with the dead is the most intense kind.

In order for this person to return to a state of purity, he had to undergo a seven-day process of spiritual purification, during which time he could not visit the Holy Temple, bring a sacrifice, touch ritually pure food, and so on. This, of course, applied in biblical and Temple times, not today. Today only members of the priestly family observe some of the commandments of purity and impurity.

This process of purification included being sprinkled with ashes from a red heifer that was burned in a very special way. These ashes were mixed with spring water and other ingredients. This process sounds strange; to our minds it doesn't make sense.

And yet, the Torah says, whether you like it or not, "this is the decree of the Torah." You don't like it, you can remain impure. Generally, it's no sin to remain impure for an extended period of time. If a person wants to be ritually impure (tameh) for the rest of his life, go ahead. But, as long as you are impure, you cannot do the following things: You cannot come to the Temple, you cannot bring a sacrifice, you cannot touch ritually pure food. If you want to be out of it, that's your privilege. But if you want to come back, you must go through this entire process.

Intellect and Beyond

Now the interesting thing about it is that those priests who were involved in preparing the ashes of the red heifer -- in order to help their fellow Jews become pure again -- became impure. The Torah says that the mystery, the paradox, of the red heifer is that it "purified the impure and made impure the pure." How does something that has the ability to purify one person cause impurity in another? It doesn't appear to make sense; it's a contradiction. Yet, "This is the decree of the Torah."

The commandments are divided into three categories, called mishpatim, chukim, and eidot. The category of commandments called mishpatim, which is probably the majority of the Torah, refers to those commandments that are rational. They are so rational, that even if the Torah didn't tell us, we'd probably figure them out by ourselves. Like the prohibition against murder; you don't have to be a very pious, G‑d-fearing Jew to realize that killing is not a nice thing to do. Many people are not murderers even though they're not righteous or ethical. This is the category of mishpatim.

Eidot are a different kind of commandment. Eidot are those commandments that we probably would never have invented of our own accord, but because the Torah told us, we can see some logic in them. Basically, these are the commandments that have to do with testimony: they testify that certain historical events occurred, such as Passover: when G‑d took us out of Egypt, our forefathers ate matzah, unleavened bread, so we also eat matzah. It could be that we'd never come up with it on our own, but we can accept it; it makes sense in a certain way.

Chukim are those commandments that we just cannot figure out rationally. The classic example is the red heifer -- who would ever think of such a commandment? To take a red heifer, burn it, and sprinkle its ashes… who would invent such a commandment? No one. Another example is the prohibition against wearing linen and wool. Who would even think of such a commandment -- that you shouldn't be able to wear linen and wool, shaatnez? Why not? Or to deny yourself cheeseburgers. Why should the Torah say that this food is no good, that food is good; this meat is kosher because it comes from an animal that chews its cud and has split hooves, whereas the other meat is not kosher because it comes from an animal which does not have these qualifications?

We see that there are certain commandments that just don't make mortal sense. Try as you will, you will never find a rational reason for those commandments. Those commandments are called chukim -- laws, statutes, decrees. You like it, you don't like it; this is the Jewish way. Take it or leave it.

The red heifer falls into the category of chukim -- it is the classical decree. The Torah says "this is the decree of the Torah," not, "this is the decree of the red heifer," as if to say: "This is the paradigmatic decree of the entire Torah. If you want to know what the whole Torah is about, look at the red heifer." And then we say to ourselves, "But how can you say that this is the decree of the Torah? This is so different from other commandments. It's not like the other commandments; it's unusual. It's the exception, not the rule. I don't know any other commandment that's so weird."

We have to look a little bit deeper in order to see that hidden in the commandment of the red heifer are many of the most fundamental concepts of the Torah.

In every person, there are two levels. There's the level of intellect, and there's the level of will. Will and intellect are not the same thing. You might think that since a person is basically an intelligent being, the will and the intellect are the same thing; you want what makes sense, and what makes sense is what you want. But it doesn't always work that way: You could know, logically, that this is the right thing, but you don't want it -- you want something else, which everybody tells you is crazy.

For example, with fattening foods. The doctor and your mom will tell you, "You should not eat that cookie, it has so many calories and so much fat." But she says, "I don't care, I like the taste!" Or it could be with a dress: "It's only dry-cleanable, it's white, it's too expensive, it doesn't make sense." But the kid says, "I want it, I like it, and that's that!" Will is will and brains are brains; they are not the same thing.

Intellect is something that you can explain in words. Will is something that is higher than intellect, that you cannot explain. If somebody asks you, "Why do you want this thing? It doesn't make sense, it's crazy!" You can't even explain to them why. "I just want it. That's it. I want it; I can't tell you why, I just want it."

Reaching the Essence

The same way that our will transcends intellect, so too, with an obvious difference, with G‑d -- because we are created in G‑d's image. Everything that exists in a person is a mirror of what is going on in G‑d Himself. Chassidic teachings explains that there's a level of G‑dly revelation which can be understood rationally, and there's a level of G‑d that transcends intellect, that we can never understand.

Those commandments which are called mishpatim, those that make sense to us, are actually at a lower level. For every commandment G‑d asks of us -- don't murder, don't steal, etc. -- there is a Divine reason, a Divine desire that G‑d has for us to do that commandment. Some of the commandments were "contracted"; they came down in such a way that they can be understood even by limited human intellect.

Imagine a mother trying to tell her three-year-old child why he has to eat vegetables. She says, "If you eat the vegetables, you will grow, you'll be strong, your teeth won't hurt, you'll see well at night…" She can't really explain to the child everything it says in the textbook about vitamins, but she tries to condense the idea that vegetables are healthy to her child, in whatever language; she's bringing it down to the child's level.

Then there are certain things that parents don't even try to explain -- it's just too complicated, it's too high. They will never be able to give this concept to a three-year-old. So when the three-year-old says, "Mom, why do I have to…?" You say, "Listen, honey, I'm your mommy, you're my child, and you're going to do it because I said so." You know that when the child is 25 and is herself a mother, you will try then to talk it out; but right now, "I'm your mommy, and you must listen to me."

Certain things G‑d cannot explain to us. Our intellect, compared to G‑d, is far lower than that of a three-year-old compared to a twenty-five-year-old. The child is going to be a parent someday. Right now the child is three; but when he's six, when he's ten -- his intellect grows. And eventually he and you will be on the same level; sometimes children surpass their parents in intelligence, it's just a relative thing. But the intelligence of a human being compared to the Creator? The gap is infinite.

Those commandments we call chukim are on such a level, that there is no way G‑d could condense the reason or the rationality behind them in terms the human mind can grasp. And that's why G‑d doesn't even try; we just do it because He said so. It's not possible for a human being to understand a chok, decree.

Therefore, a chok in a sense is higher than a mishpat -- a commandment that we understand -- because it cannot come down to the level of understanding. Just take it and do it; it's the Jewish thing to do. That's what you tell a person: when a person asks "Why?" you ask, "Are you Jewish? If you are Jewish, then you should know that this is what Jewish people do; this is part of the Jewish Torah. You can't understand it, but it's the Jewish thing to do, so do it. You don't understand it? You don't have to understand everything; who says you have to understand everything?"

But when you do a commandment that doesn't make sense to you, that your mind can't even relate to at all, and you do it anyway, you are reaching a part of G‑d which is called etzem -- the essence. In other words, G‑d 's "intellect" is a lower dimension of G‑d than G‑d 's essence, just as our intellect is lower than our will.

Would you say that the essence of a person is his IQ? No, because the person's intellectual level is one of the manifestations of who he is, but it's not him. You are something that is greater than any of your powers. Your brain is a detail of you, but you are greater than your brain, your speech and your powers.

The word etzem in Hebrew means "bone," just as we know that inside each of our limbs there is a bone. But it also means the essence -- what's inside. It is the quality of "what is it?" That's the essence.

The essence of G‑d is His innermost core. It's far higher than any explanation. When you do a commandment that you don't understand, you're hooking in, not to G‑d 's "brain," but to G‑d's essence. And that's much higher.

When you say, "I am doing the commandment because I enjoy doing it, because it makes me feel good, because it makes so much sense, because I like it," that is one level. But a much higher level is reached when one can say, "I am doing it because I am a Jew; I have a Jewish soul. And my G‑d said that He wants me to do this, so I'm going to do it. I don't know if I understand it, I don't know if I agree with it -- but I'm going to do it anyway." When you do a commandment like that, it's infinitely greater than doing the commandment because you understand it. You are transcending the level of intellect. The essence of your soul is joining with the essence of G‑d.

This means that your highest level is linking up with G‑d 's highest level. It's a superior way of serving G‑d.

To put it another way, we are all different in many ways; if we were all to take an IQ test right now, we would not all get the same mark. Let's say that all of us were meeting together in a room, and would have to perform a rational commandment -- the commandment of learning Torah, for example. Suppose somebody would come and say, "I want everybody, for the next hour, to learn Torah; it's a commandment to learn Torah." Everybody in the room would do it differently: those who could learn with commentaries would learn it on a very high level; those who can barely read Hebrew would do it on a lower level, in a sense. Everybody would learn Torah according to their level of insight; it would be very, very different. Some would enjoy it, some wouldn't enjoy it -- everybody would be different.

However, if G‑d would come and say, "I want you all to do something now: lift your right hand like this and your left hand like that, jump four times, and turn around and look at the ceiling." No one would understand what in the world this is. But we would all do the same thing -- whether we understood it or not -- because it has nothing to do with intelligence.

In other words, a thing that has to do with intellect varies: everybody does it according to their own intellect. But a thing that has nothing to do with intellect is all the same; it is indicative of what we all have in common. As far as essence is concerned, we are all the same. The essence of the soul is the same for all Jews; it has nothing to do with things that happen after you came down to this Earth. So again, when a Jew observes the commandment which is called a chok -- a decree -- it is a very lofty way of serving G‑d.

By Nechoma Greisman, based on the teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory.

Nechoma Greisman was an educator, counselor and speaker who reached thousands of women through her classes and books. Tragically, at the age of 39, hours after giving birth to her tenth child, Nechoma was taken from this world, leaving an enormous and irreplaceable loss to Jews worldwide.
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Rabbi Yossi Grossbaum, for Folsom, CA via May 22, 2017

The category of mitzvot called "chukim", or statutes, are those for which the Torah provides no explanation. We fulfill them because G-d commanded us to, not because there is a logical explanation. These mitzvot demonstrate our great love of G-d, we do what He wants just because He wants it, not because we can relate to it.
While your comments may well be true, that the reason behind the laws of impurity associated with a corpse is due to disease, the Torah does not provide that reason - or any reason.
And you're right that there is nothing intrinsically purifying about a Red Heifer. The sprinkling of the Red Heifer is effective for only one reason - G-d's command. Reply

JSegal Seattle, Wa November 1, 2010

Chukim Chukim.....Hmmmmmmm....blind faith. "God said it, I believe it, that settles it." So now I am a practicing Jew of the highest order. I thought only Christians and Muslims thought that way....guess I'm wrong. May G-d help us all for our blind convictions. Reply

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