Chapter 19

2 This is the rule of the Torah: As we have seen previously,1 death is the antithesis of holiness, for God is the source of life and vitality. Thus, any contact with death or potential death produces tumah, the ritual defilement that excludes the individual from entering the Tabernacle (or later, the Temple), the realm of holiness and Divine vitality. When confronted with the reality of death, we become exposed to the contagious influence of the law of entropy: the natural reality that everything is decaying, dying, headed toward oblivion, and that life is futile and meaningless. This depressing worldview results in a spiritual paralysis, an unwillingness or inability to act positively, and is therefore diametrically opposed to our Divine mission, which asserts that there is purpose to life and affirms that fulfilling it is indeed possible.

In order to regain entry into the realm of pure life, the individual must undergo a purification process, which serves to cure his depression (real or potential) and reorient him toward the enthusiasm and vitality of holiness.

All the varieties of defilement in the Torah and their corresponding purification rites can be understood in terms of their relative proximity to death. Clearly, though, the most fundamental form of defilement is the absolute, unmitigated apparition of death itself: a lifeless, human corpse. Because this form of defilement is the source of all others, its purification rite is the most extreme and mysterious in the entire Torah. As we said, the law of nature indeed decrees that sooner or later everything and everyone succumbs to death. To defy this law is to defy logic, and therefore, the rite of purification from death hails from a level of existence that defies logic; it is a “rule,” a seemingly arbitrary expression of God’s will, devoid of rationale and even contravening logic altogether, as we shall see.2

This is the rule of the Torah: The implication of this phraseology is that the rite described here is the rule of the Torah; that although there are other “rules,” only this one defies logic absolutely.

The lack of logic in the Torah’s other nonrational commandments lies in their selfcontradictions or inconsistencies. The preparation of the solution used to purify deathdefilement, however, is completely illogical: an animal is killed, but it is reduced to ashes; it is neither offered as a sacrifice nor used as a scapegoat. The process appears to be pointless.

We saw in the overview that the Torah’s “rules” (chukim) express the level of our relationship with God that is “chiseled” into our very being. Now that we have differentiated between the rest of the Torah’s “rules” and the rule par excellence, we can illustrate their differences in terms of two types of chiseling: chiseling letters into a stone and chiseling them all the way through a stone. In the first type of chiseling, the letters, though fashioned by removing part of the stone, are still formed by the part of the stone that remains. In the second type, however, the stone only frames the letters; the letters themselves are not made out of stone at all. The rite of the red cow is the latter type of chiseling; it is not grounded in the logical, solid reality of this world at all.3

This is the rule of the Torah: By calling this rite “the rule of the Torah” (rather than “the rule of purity” or “the rule of the red cow”), the Torah implies that there is something about it that is intrinsic to the Torah as a whole. There are indeed a number of lessons in this ritual that can apply to the entire Torah, but the most fundamental is the fact that it is a “rule,” an expression of God’s will devoid of rationale. Since there is no rational reason for this rite, we observe it purely out of devotion to God’s will. Similarly, we should follow all God’s commandments, even those for which there is a rationale, out of pure devotion to His will. For in truth, all God’s commandments are expressions of His will and therefore deserve our full, unconditional commitment; it is just that the “rational” commandments have been garbed in rationality, while the others have not.4

In fact, there is a “reason” for this rite, but it is not an intellectual reason; it is not even based on God’s intellect. It “makes sense” only in the overall context of God’s will, which transcends intellect. Therefore, King Solomon, the wisest of all men, said of this rite, “I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me.”5

Moses, in contrast, was so selfless that he was acutely sensitive to God’s will, and could therefore sense the “reason” behind this rite. Therefore, God did reveal the reason behind it to him.6

Because there is a Divine reason behind it, the intellect cannot oppose observing this commandment (and other “rules” like it), for the human intellect must logically admit that God’s reason is greater than its own. This being the case, performing such commandments does not mean that we are acting without reason: there is indeed a reason behind them; it is just that we cannot fathom it.

Because of this, even the intellectually oriented Seleucids of the Hasmonean era did not oppose observing such commandments. What irked them was the Jews’ unconditional commitment to performing God’s will without any regard to whether doing so makes sense or not.7

3 And he shall take it outside the camp and slaughter it: All other sacrifices must be offered inside the Tabernacle precincts; only this one is offered outside. This is because all other sacrifices atone for inadvertent sins, which we commit because our animal nature makes us careless about spiritual concerns. Since our animal nature can be refined and co-opted into holiness, we can offer the sacrifices that accomplish this inside the Tabernacle. The red cow, in contrast, is brought to purify us from the defilement of death, which cannot be refined or elevated— it must be totally annihilated; the red cow must be entirely reduced to inedible ashes. It therefore has no place inside the Tabernacle.8

7-10 The priest…shall remain defiled until evening. The one who burns it…shall remain defiled until evening. … The one who gathers the cow’s ashes…shall remain defiled until evening: Herein lies the central paradox of the rite of the red cow: although the ashes purify the defiled, they also defile the pure.

In other words, the priests who prepare and administer the ashes must be prepared to leave the Tabernacle precincts and be defiled—temporarily excluded from all things holy—in order to purify their fellow Jews. It is this altruistic self-sacrifice, the priests’ willingness to transcend their personal interest, that elicits God’s transcendent holiness and effects purification.

To be sure, God rewards all good deeds, and the priests surely know that in the long run they will only gain from putting aside their own purity and troubling themselves to purify their defiled brethren. But in order for the ritual to work, they cannot have this in mind; their motives must be pure.

From this example, we learn (1) how willing we should be to help another person reenter the dominion of purity and holiness, even if doing so requires us to become temporarily defiled ourselves, and (2) how much care we must take to ensure our motives are pure.

This is another way the rite of the red cow is “the rule of the Torah”9: the purpose of the whole Torah is to help us rise above our selfcenteredness, and this is expressed by selflessly helping our fellow Jew.10

The fact that the Torah tells us to take the red cow “for you,” for Moses, means that we draw the inspiration and ability to be utterly selfless from Moses—from the original Moses, from the leaders of each generation, and from the “Moses” within each of us.11

9 Rather than being used, it will remain for the congregation of the Israelites as a keepsake: In our dedication to community, we can forget that we, too, can become defiled. Moreover, when we help someone else, our role of benefactor can give us delusions of grandeur. Finally, we must not compromise our standards of purity in other areas when we defile ourselves for someone else. For all these reasons, a portion of the ashes of the red cow is to be kept as a reminder for those who undertake to purify their defiled brethren.12

12 On the third and seventh days he shall purify himself with it: In order to purify ourselves from the defilement of death—which in psychological terms means the paralysis of depression or a deadness toward the spiritual dimension of life—we must invoke the third and seventh emotional attributes of the soul. The third emotion is mercy or pity (rachamim), and the seventh emotion is lowliness (shiflut). The more we feel the pain our Divine soul suffers from its constricted consciousness in the material world, the more we are aroused to rescue it by studying the Torah and performing God’s commandments. Thus, we address God in our prayers as the one “who resurrects the dead with abundant mercy.”13 And the less egocentric we are, the less our self-interests block the flow of Divine life-force and vitality that should energize our lives.14

17 They shall take for that defiled person: In the course of teaching Moses the Torah on Mt. Sinai, God taught him the laws concerning the various types of defilement and purification rites. The sages tell us that when they reached the subject of defilement by a corpse, God did not tell Moses right away how a person defiled this way can be purified. So Moses asked, but God still did not answer. Moses’ face turned red out of consternation. Only after this did God teach him the rites of the red cow.15

Like the laws of the second Passover,16 the laws of this rite were always part of God’s Torah, but He waited to reveal them until receiving some stimulus from below. In this case, it was Moses’ concern over the plight of someone banished from the Tabernacle that elicited the laws of these purification rites.

As we have seen,17 other types of defilement are, in certain ways, more severe than that caused by contact with a corpse. So it was not because of its severity that Moses wondered how such defilement can be purified. Rather, it was because Moses, due to his constant connection to God, the source of life, could barely imagine how such a form of impurity could exist. How, he wondered, could contact with a corpse imperil a person’s connection with the source of life? Life and death, holiness and evil, purity and defilement, exhilaration and depression—all of these are so mutually exclusive that the negative entities cannot possibly threaten the positive ones.

Initially, God did not answer Moses, because for someone on Moses’ level, there is no answer to this question. Someone with Moses’ purity of perception really is beyond the defilement of death. But when God did not answer, Moses realized that not everyone is on his level of Divine consciousness and that most people can and do become defiled by contact with death. Fearing that the common people’s very susceptibility to such defilement precluded their release from it, he became deeply concerned for their predicament.

It was then that God revealed to him the secret of the rites of the red cow. Logically, Moses was right: there is no way someone susceptible to the defilement of death should be able to be freed from it. But because of his deep concern, God showed him how this rite reaches beyond logic and elicits His infinite mercy, which is indeed capable of redeeming even an ordinary person from death.

Moses’ example is worthy of following: when we realize that there are people who, for whatever reason, cannot enter the precincts of holiness, this should concern us deeply. And now that, thanks to Moses, the means exists to purify these people, we should do all in our power to bring them back to the fold of purity and holiness.18

Chapter 20

2 The well that had accompanied the people…in her merit: Water helps the body digest its food, ensuring that the nutrients in the food are absorbed properly throughout the body. Allegorically, the soul’s “food” is the Torah, and its “water” is the Torah’s ability to reach and influence all parts of the soul, all types of people, and all facets of life—even those that in and of themselves are the least receptive to it.

As we have seen,19 Miriam was devoted to the continuity of the Jewish people, particularly by ensuring that there would be a new generation to carry on God’s mission. Because of her efforts to ensure that the Torah would continue to “flow” into the next generation, even reaching and speaking to children, the people’s source of water in the desert existed in her merit.20

8 Take your staff: When God restored the well that had existed in Miriam’s merit, He did so through Moses, for the leaders of the Jewish people are responsible not only for guiding them spiritually and leading them politically but for providing for their physical needs as well.21

12 To sanctify Me in the eyes of the Israelites: Herein lies the reason why Moses and Aaron were punished so severely. Jewish leaders must always take into account how the public will interpret their actions. Whatever rationalizations or long-term considerations may justify their conduct to themselves, they must decide how to act based on whether the public will be inspired by their actions to greater devotion to the Torah and its ways—or not.22

Chapter 21

1 The “Clouds of Glory”…existed in his merit: We are taught that Aaron loved all Jews equally, solicited their well-being, patiently taught them the Torah, and diplomatically quieted arguments between people and even between spouses.23 Therefore, the Clouds of Glory, which surrounded all the Jewish people equally, existed in his merit.24

The king of Amalek waged war against Israel and took a captive from them: Amalek attacked the Israelites when they first left Egypt and were on their way to receive the Torah, and here again as they were preparing to enter the Land of Israel. In the first skirmish, they did not disguise themselves, but here they did.

Allegorically, Amalek is the element of doubt that cools the enthusiasm we are supposed to feel toward God and our Divine mission. In this sense, our inner Amalek does not oppose receiving the Torah, only our excitement about it. After all, he argues, learning the Torah is an intellectual endeavor. Reason requires a calm, seasoned attitude, not fiery enthusiasm. In particular, he argues against our passionate commitment to God’s laws even before we have learned what they are.25 “If the Torah is true,” he contends, “we will eventually commit to it even if we predicate action on study. Why be so impetuous and irrational?”

In fact, however, the Amalekite attitude will eventually lead us off the Torah’s path. Unless we approach the Torah with the warmth and enthusiasm that flow naturally from relating to it as God’s will and wisdom, we will lose interest in it and squander our energies on diversions and lifestyles that offer more immediate gratification, whether material or spiritual.

If the inner Amalek fails to cool us off, he will disguise himself as a Canaanite, an inhabitant of the land of material life we enter after our daily prayers and studies. He will then argue, “I have no quarrel with your acting holy and Godly while you pray and study the Torah. But when you set about to earn your living and deal with the physical world, you have to forget all of that and live by my rules. You cannot expect to succeed in the real world if you refuse to work on the Sabbath and festivals, if you donate any significant amount of your hard-earned money to charity, if you insist on providing your children with the best Jewish education, and so on. You must focus on material success, not on elevating material reality and raising Divine consciousness wherever you go and whatever you do.”

The inner Amalek behaves the way Amalek behaved in this historical episode: “he took a captive from them,” someone the Israelites had originally captured from the Amalekites. “The material world,” Amalek maintains, “belongs to me. You are the one who—by transforming the material into the spiritual—is stealing from me what is rightfully mine.”

Just as Amalek attacked us at the beginning and end of our trek in the desert, we engage him in the beginning and end of our post-desert history. God commanded King Saul, the first king of Israel, to wipe out Amalek. Because Saul did not follow God’s instructions fully, a later descendant of Amalek, Haman, almost wiped out the Jews completely. Now, as we stand at the end of our post-desert history, on the eve of our final entry into the Land of Israel, we must face Amalek once again.

As before, Amalek disguises himself as the sophisticated businessman, making light of our commitment to God’s Torah. Once again, he argues, “Forget what the Torah has to say about business ethics, honesty, morality, and responsibility. Forget that God is guiding your steps and that you need His help to succeed. No one believes that, much less acts on it. Your job is to make money, and in the dog-eat-dog world of workaday reality, you have to play by the rules if you expect to survive.”

The Torah here tells us that even though it sounds like we’re talking to an astute businessman, we should recognize that it is really Amalek, the archenemy of Israel, who is talking. Despite his concessions to our private spiritual life, his goal is to wipe us out. Therefore, the only proper response to this inner voice is to wipe it out first, by constantly renewing our impetuous enthusiasm for God and His Torah, and our desire to see it assume its rightful role as our guide in all aspects of life.26

By the route the spies had taken…and when they saw the Ark of the Covenant: The inner Amalek attacks us in two ways. Sometimes he attacks via the intellect, explaining why we should succumb to his suggestions and ignore our commitments to God and our better selves. In such cases, it is often enough to marshal our intellectual powers against him, pausing to contemplate how unprofitable it is to follow his lead on the one hand, and how wise it is to remain true to our higher callings on the other. This is “the route the spies had taken,” seeking out the natural means of conquering the enemy and using them.

At other times, the inner Amalek brazenly defies logic, insisting on our obedience without any regard to rhyme or reason. In such cases, our logical resources are of no help; we can only fall back on our transcendent relationship with God that also surpasses reason and intellect. When we remind ourselves of our intrinsic bond with God, Amalek is powerless to overcome us. This is relying on “the Ark of the Covenant,” which scatters all our enemies before us.27

7 Moses prayed on behalf of the people: Our sages teach us that although this incident does illustrate Moses’ exceptional character and selfless devotion to his people, this point has already been made and there is no need for the Torah to emphasize it again. Rather, Moses’ wholehearted forgiveness of the people who slandered him is intended to serve as an example for us.28 When we forgive someone only “officially,” we indeed cause him to be spared any Divine punishment for his acts against us. But when we forgive him completely, cleansing ourselves of any residual grudge against him, we are moved to pray for his overall well-being and spiritual betterment as well.

In this, Moses’ example exceeds that given by Abraham when he forgave Abimelech.29 Abraham asked God only to reverse the punishment He had meted out to the Philistines, but no more. We are therefore told to take our cue from Moses’ example.30

8-9 God said, “Make a venomous snake”: In responding to their sin by unleashing deadly, poisonous snakes against them, God was telling the people that sin—which was introduced to humanity by the primordial snake—leads to death, while submission to God’s will is the key to life.

Since the snakes were deadly, anyone who had been bitten was for all intents and purposes already dead. Healing the bitten person was thus tantamount to resurrecting him.

Now, in order to resurrect a dead person, it is not enough to simply infuse his body with life, because the body has already lost its capacity to support life. First, the dead body has to be made capable once more of living. This can be done only by a force that transcends the laws of nature, including the dichotomy of life and death. Infusing this transcendent force into the dead body restores its capacity to support life, after which the person’s soul can re-enter it and he can live again.

This is why God also commanded Moses to heal the people using a snake. By using the image of the deadly, primordial snake to restore life, God indicated to them that resurrection requires eliciting a level of Divinity that transcends the dichotomy of life and death.

When the people saw the snake, they understood that in order to elicit this transcendent Divinity and be healed, they had to transform their own, inner “snake”—their evil inclination—into a force of good.

The evil inclination impels us to sin for comfort, pleasure, or excitement. When we convince it that the truest comfort, pleasure, and excitement lie in holiness, it plunges headlong into fulfilling God’s purpose on earth, endowing our drive toward Divinity with much greater power than it could have had otherwise. Thus, the initially evil inclination becomes a source of merit and goodness. The snake is transformed from the source of death to the agent of life.31

21 Israel sent messengers: The fact that the Torah says that Moses sent messengers to Edom but Israel sent messengers to Sichon, even though in both cases Moses sent the messengers on behalf of all Israel, teaches us that the two entities—Moses and Israel—are essentially equivalent.32 The true Jewish leader does not just represent the people (even in their best interests), he is one with them in essence. His affairs are not compartmentalized into his private and public lives, for he is a public servant to his very core. Therefore, anything he does is considered to have been done by the whole people.

Furthermore, his total identification with the people and selfless devotion to them makes him the conduit through which God provides all their material and spiritual needs. Therefore, not only is he one with them: they are one with him. They can rise to his perspective on reality and share his Divine consciousness and his inspired life, even if they have not yet refined themselves enough to be worthy of these on their own.33