Certainly the most esoteric chapter in the Torah is the law of the “red heifer” (parah adumah), commanded by G‑d to Moses (Numbers 19) as an antidote to the state of ritual impurity engendered by contact with death. The Midrash describes how King Solomon, “the wisest of men,” was baffled by it; and how Moses, the very vehicle of G‑d’s communication of His Torah to man, turned pale upon encountering the prospect of contamination by death, and found utterly incomprehensible the process of its rectification, crying out to G‑d: “Master of the universe! This is a purification?!”

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.1

Thus the laws of the red heifer are introduced by the Torah with the phrase “This is the chok of the Torah,” as if to say: this is the Torah’s ultimate chok, the mitzvah that most vividly demonstrates the supra-rationality of its Divine commandments.

The Mystery of Death

Indeed, explains the Lubavitcher Rebbe (in a talk delivered upon the conclusion of the sheloshim [30-day mourning period] for his wife), 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 all—even a man such as Moses—find death 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.”

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 Adam’s 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 maid’s child once dirtied the royal palace. Said the king: “Let his mother come and clean up her child’s 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 be overcome only 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 when 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.”