Adapted from
Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XVIII, p. 229ff

What Mortal Knowledge Cannot Grasp

The term Chukim refers to those mitzvos whose rationale cannot be grasped by human intellect. Within this category, however, the laws of the Red Heifer stand out as unique. Thus the Midrash1 quotes King Shlomo (about whom it is written:2 “And Shlomo was wiser than every man on the face of the earth”):

I was able to comprehend all the [other difficult passages in the Torah], but with regard to the passage of the Red Heifer, I asked and I sought; “I said: ‘I will become wise,’ but I [saw] that it was far from me.”3

Indeed, it was only with regard to Moshe that the Midrash4 states: “The Holy One, blessed be He, told Moshe: ‘To you [alone] will I reveal the rationale for the Red Heifer.’ ”

On one hand, these quotes imply that the laws of the Red Heifer do not entirely transcend the realms of intellect, for Moshe was granted an understanding of their rationale. Nevertheless, the explanation obviously transcends ordinary knowledge, and thus could not be perceived by Shlomo, nor did Moshe communicate it to others.5 Indeed, even Moshe’s appreciation did not come as a result of own powers of comprehension. As the Midrash states:6 “It is a chukah, a decree which I have ordained. No created beings are able to comprehend My decrees.”

Why was Moshe able to grasp this rationale? Because he was granted a unique gift from G‑d. G‑d is omnipotent able to fuse transcendence with limitation and it was by virtue of this omnipotence that Moshe was able to appreciate the explanation.

To Tap the Essence of the Torah

The question arises: Why was the answer given only to Moshe? If appreciating the rationale of the Red Heifer could advance one’s Divine service, why didn’t G‑d or Moshe share it with others?

The answer depends on insight into the nature of the Torah. The Torah is one with G‑d,7 an expression of His essential will. Therefore, just as His will is above intellectual comprehension, so too is the Torah. Nevertheless, G‑d gave the Torah to mortals, not because He desires their obedience, but because He is concerned for their welfare. He wants man to develop a connection with Him, and for that connection to be internalized within man’s understanding, so that G‑dly wisdom becomes part of his makeup. And with that intent, He enclothed the Torah in an intellectual framework.

This intellectual dimension is, however, merely an extension of the Torah. The Torah’s essence remains transcendent G‑dliness, and cannot be contained within any limits even the limits of intellect. To relate to this essence, man must approach the Torah with a commitment that transcends wisdom or logic.

To highlight this dimension, it was necessary for at least one part of the Torah to remain entirely above intellectual comprehension. This is the passage describing the laws of the Red Heifer. These laws, which transcend our understanding, help us to appreciate that the entire Torah in its essence is also beyond our understanding. This in turn heightens our sensitivity to its inner G‑dly core.

Were the entire Torah to have been clothed in reason, man would be motivated to rely on his own understanding, and would have difficulty in rising to a challenge that requires mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice. Indeed, limiting our spiritual commitment to the intellectual sphere would encourage man’s natural, material inclination. There would be a tendency to follow one’s desires, and to rationalize one’s conduct, even when it is lacking.8 Without making an unlimited commitment to the Torah, man would not be able to relate to its unlimited truth.

The laws of the Red Heifer, however, imbue a person with an awareness of the unlimited nature of the Torah, stirring him to devote himself entirely to the Torah, both to its observance and its study.9 Becoming conscious of the inner G‑dly nature of the Torah awakens the inner G‑dly nature of our souls, enabling us to develop a more complete bond with Him.

To underscore the unique contribution represented by the laws of the Red Heifer, the Torah refers to them as chukas haTorah (“the decree of the Torah”),10 rather than chukas haporah (“the decree of the [Red] Heifer”).11 Use of the former term emphasizes that our connection with the entire Torah depends on a commitment which transcends intellect.

A Selfless Self

This answer, however, leads to a further question. If regarding the laws of the Red Heifer as a chok is essential to our approach to the Torah, why did G‑d reveal their rationale to Moshe? According to the above reasoning, this would detract from Moshe’s commitment!

To resolve this conundrum, we must conclude that the explanation for the chok was not given in a form that could be grasped by Moshe’s intellect. Instead, G‑d’s essential will was revealed within Moshe’s thought. That which cannot be understood thus became the cornerstone of his intellectual powers.

To explain: Moshe represented the personification of Chochmah, usually translated as “wisdom.” But there is a difference between Chochmah and our ordinary conception of wisdom.

All conceptualization is made up of two elements: a) the idea itself, and b) the process of opening oneself to that idea, stepping beyond one’s previous way of thinking. Chochmah relates to the second element, and thus is identified with bittul, selfless existence.12 This bittul makes Chochmah an appropriate vessel for the Ein Sof, G‑d’s infinity.13 And this spiritual process the causing of the Ein Sof to rest within Chochmah is what took place when G‑d made known to Moshe the rationale for the laws of the Red Heifer.

For this reason, knowing the rationale did not detract from Moshe’s commitment. Unlike other mortals, Moshe did not have a separate, individual self image; he saw himself only as a medium for the expression of G‑d’s Truth. Mesirus nefesh was the essence of his nature, and hence could never be diminished.

In the Era of the Redemption, Mashiach will offer the tenth Red Heifer, purifying first the priests and through them the entire nation.14 And we will then proceed in our Divine service to the age when purification from contact with the dead made possible by the ceremony of the Red Heifer will no longer be necessary. For “He will swallow up death for eternity,”15 and G‑dliness, the source of all life, will be overtly revealed throughout all existence.