Certainly the most esoteric chapter in Torah are the laws of the "Red Heifer" (Parah Adumah), commanded by G‑d to Moses in Numbers 19 as an antidote to the state of ritual impurity engendered by contact with death.

The Midrash tells us that King Solomon, whom the Torah attests was "the wisest of men," said of this mitzvah: "All [of the Torah's commandments] I have comprehended. But the chapter of the Red Heifer, though I have examined it, questioned it and searched it outI thought to be wise to it, but it is distant from me" (Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 19:3, after Ecclesiastes 7:23).

Even Moses, whose mind was the vehicle of G‑d's communication of His wisdom and will to humanity, had difficulty dealing with the concept. As the Midrash relates:

In everything that G‑d taught Moses, He would tell him both the manner of contamination and the manner of purification. When G‑d came to the laws concerning one who comes in contact with a dead body, Moses said to Him: "Master of the universe! If one is thus contaminated, how may he be purified?" G‑d did not answer him. At that moment, the face of Moses turned pale.

When G‑d came to the section of the Red Heifer, He said to Moses: "This is its manner of purification." Said Moses to G‑d: "Master of the universe! This is a purification?" Said G‑d: "Moses, it is a chok, a decree that I have decreed, and no creature can fully comprehend My decrees" (Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet 8:5).

It's not just that the law of the Red Heifer cannot be logically explained; indeed, there exists an entire category of mitzvot, called chukim ("decrees"), whose defining criteria is that they transcend human understanding. What's unique about the Red Heifer is that while the other chukim at least follow an internal logic of their own, the laws of the Red Heifer are fraught with paradox and inconsistency. To cite but several of numerous examples:

a) The ashes of the Red Heifer remove the most severe of all impurities; yet those involved in its preparation become ritually impure themselves.

b) The Red Heifer must be completely red (as few as two hairs of a different color disqualify it)a color which has connotations of sin and deficiency in Torah and Torah law; yet it must also be "perfect, without blemish."

c) The Torah commands that it be slaughtered outside the holy city of Jerusalem (in contrast with other korbanot, which must be slaughtered in the courtyard of the Holy Temple). On the other hand, it must be slaughtered within the sight of the Holy Temple and its blood is sprinkled "toward the Holy of Holies"; according to one opinion, it must be slaughtered by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) himself, wearing the "white garments" reserved for the Yom Kippur service in the Holy of Holies.

d) The two components of the purifying mixture—ashes and spring water—represent two contradictory forces: fire, which represents the power of ascent, and water, which embodies the quality of "settling down" and saturation.

Thus the laws of the Red Heifer are introduced by the Torah with the words "This is the chok of the Torah", as if to say: this is the Torah's ultimate chok, the mitzvah that most vividly demonstrates to supra-rationality of its divine commandments.  

The Mystery of Death

Indeed, explains the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the most incomprehensible of human experiences—the phenomenon of death—can be sublimated only with the most incomprehensible of divine mitzvot, the ashes and water of the Red Heifer.

Physically and biologically, death makes perfect sense (indeed, it is the phenomenon of life that defies explanation). Yet we find it utterly incomprehensible, utterly devastating to our sense of reality. Despite all the "evidence" to the contrary, something deep inside us insists that life is the natural, axiomatic state of the human being, and that its cessation is a violation of the most basic law of existence.

For such, in truth, is the fundamental nature of man. True, the human body is physical flesh, and as such, shares the dissolutive nature of all things physical. But it is animated by a soul that is a "spark of the Divine" and fortified with the eternity and indestructibility of its Source. In essence, human life is eternal.

Indeed, the first man was created to live forever. But then he violated the Divine will, thereby distancing himself from his Source and introducing the phenomenon of death into the human experience.

Our Sages tell us that when the Children of Israel stood at Sinai to receive the Torah from G‑d, they were restored to the original perfection in which man was first created. The Torah reinstated the original, unadulterated bond between G‑d and man, so that man was once more granted "freedom from the Angel of Death" (Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 41:9).

But this time, too, the state of perfect connection to G‑d was short-lived. Forty days after the people of Israel stood at Sinai, they transgressed the divine decree "You shall have no other gods before Me" by worshipping a calf of gold. The pestilence of death, introduced into the world by Adams sin and banished at Sinai, was reintroduced by the sin of the Golden Calf.

This explains the connection between the Red Heifer and the Golden Calf expressed in the Midrashic parable:

A maids child once dirtied the royal palace. Said the king: "Let his mother come and clean up her childs filth." By the same token, G‑d says: "Let the Heifer atone for the deed of the Calf" (Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 8).

In our post-Calf world, the imperfection in our relationship with G‑d finds its most noxious expression in the phenomenon of death. Contact with death thus spawns the most severe form of spiritual impurity, which can be mitigated only by the mother of the Golden Calf, the most supra-rational of the divine decrees—the Red Heifer.

This was G‑d's reply to Moses' cry, Master of the universe! This is a purification?! "Moses," G‑d said, "it is a chok, a decree that I have decreed." Certain things are so overwhelming to My creations that they can only be overcome by submitting to an absolute command from an absolute authority. I have therefore commanded laws to instruct you what to do when your lives are touched by death. These are supra-rational, even irrational laws, for only such laws can facilitate your recovery. It is only by force of an utterly incomprehensible divine decree that you can recover from such utter devastation to a living being's self-definition.

Ultimately, however, there will come the day that the original bond between man and G‑d will once more be restored. This time, our prophets promise, it will be immune to disruption by sin, since G‑d will "slaughter the inclination for evil" in the heart of man and "remove the spirit of impurity from the earth," with the result that "death shall cease forever."

Based on an address delivered by the Lubavitcher Rebbe upon the conclusion of the sheloshim (30-day morning period) after his wife; adapted by
Yanki Tauber