Classic Questions

Why is the red heifer referred to as "the suprarational command of the Torah"? (v. 19:2)

Rashi: Because Satan and the nations of the world cause grief to the Jewish people, saying, "What is this commandment? What purpose does it have?" Therefore, the Torah uses the term chukah (suprarational command). [G‑d says], "It is My personal decree. You do not have permission to ponder over it."

Ramban: The nations taunt the Jewish people about this mitzvah for a reason that is similar to their derision of the scapegoat of Yom Kippur—because it is slaughtered outside the Holy Temple.

Be'er Mayim Chayim: The source of derision is the law that the pure person who performs the process becomes impure, and yet the impure person on whom the procedure is performed becomes pure. Of course, we do find such a phenomenon in nature too (for example, heat softens tin and yet will harden an egg), but one cannot bring proofs from nature to explain the mitzvot of G‑d.

Ohr haChayim: Why does the verse use the expression, "This is the suprarational command of the Torah," as if to say that this mitzvah is representative of the entire Torah?

Because the laws of ritual purity and impurity discussed here bring to light the effect of the Torah on the Jewish people. By receiving the Torah, the Jewish people became a holy people, and therefore they became an attraction for spiritual impurity. Thus, ironically, a Jewish body becomes ritually impure after the departure of the soul, due to the body's immense holiness which attracts impurity, rather like an empty jar of honey that attracts flies and insects.

An additional explanation: By writing, "This is the suprarational command of the Torah," the verse is hinting that if a person observes this mitzvah, he is credited with observing the entire Torah. For observing a mitzvah which makes no sense at all demonstrates a person's strong faith and commitment to observe all the other mitzvos too.

The Rebbe's Teachings

The "Suprarational Command of the Torah" (v. 2)

In his commentary on Parshas Toldos, Rashi defines chukim (suprarational commands): "Things which the evil inclination and the nations of the world argue against—such as eating pig and wearing shatnez— because they have no reason. Rather, they are decrees of the King, His statutes to His servants" (Rashi to Bereishis 26:5).

Likewise, in Parshas Acharei, Rashi writes: "They are decrees of the King, against which the evil inclination argues, 'Why should we keep them?' And the nations of the world argue against them. Examples are eating pig, wearing shatnez and ritual purification through the sprinkling water. Therefore the verse says, 'I am G‑d'—I have decreed upon you, and you have no right to exempt yourselves" (Rashi to Vayikra 18:4).

But here Rashi writes: "Satan and the nations of the world cause grief to the Jewish people, saying, 'What is this commandment? What purpose does it have?'....[G‑d says,] 'It is My personal decree. You do not have permission to question it.'"

A number of differences are evident between Rashi's comments:

  1. In the previous instances, the evil inclination was the source of opposition to observing the suprarational commands, whereas here, the evil inclination is not mentioned at all, but rather, the opponents are Satan and the nations of the world.
  2. On previous occasions, the opponents to the suprarational commands had been "arguing against" them, but here, Rashi writes that the Jewish people are "caused grief" by their opponent.
  3. In our parshah, Rashi writes, "You do not have permission to ponder over it," whereas earlier he wrote, "you have no right to exempt yourselves."

What is the reason for these changes, at the literal level?

Why Is This Mitzvah Suprarational?

A further question here is why the mitzvah of the red heifer is considered to be suprarational, a matter which Rashi apparently deemed to be self-understood.

Be'er Mayim Chayim writes that this mitzvah is irrational because it causes pure individuals to become impure and the impure to become pure. However, Rashi writes explicitly that there is a logic behind this point, since the red heifer is "an atonement for the Golden Calf... and just as the [Golden] Calf rendered everybody who dealt with it impure, likewise the [red] heifer renders all who deal with it impure" (Rashi, end of ch. 19, in the name of Moshe Hadarshan).

Why, then, is this mitzvah considered to be suprarational?

And finally, what problem was troubling Rashi here that prompted him to make his comments? Surely it was not the definition of the term chok (suprarational command), for this was clarified by Rashi on numerous other occasions, as cited above.

The Explanation

Rashi was troubled by the expression, "This is the suprarational command of the Torah," which suggests that the red heifer is the only suprarational command in the entire Torah, and this is clearly not the case.

What the Torah must be saying, concluded Rashi, is that there are two categories of chukim, and the red heifer is unique even among the other suprarational commands. While the other chukim (such as the prohibitions against eating pig or wearing shatnez) defy comprehension, they are nevertheless not completely incomprehensible. In fact, even sprinkling the water containing the ashes of the red heifer (which Rashi refers to in Parshas Acharei) is somewhat understood, for we know from the case of the mikvah (ritual bath) that impurity is removed by water, and this is not referred to by Rashi in any place as suprarational.

Rather, it is the ritual slaughter and offering of the red heifer which appear to be totally irrational. The red heifer could not be considered an animal sacrifice, as it was not offered on the Altar but was prepared entirely outside the camp, in contrast to all other sacrifices which must be offered inside the Holy Temple. But, on the other hand, it does seem to be a holy offering (and not merely a means of preparing ashes for the sprinkling-water), since: a.) It must be offered by the deputy High Priest (Rashi on v. 3); b.) who must face "towards the front of the Tent of Meeting (v. 4); and c.) Rashi himself affirms, "It is like other holy offerings" (v. 9). So the red heifer is a paradox: It has many signs of being a genuine animal sacrifice to G‑d, and yet it may not be offered in the Holy Temple!

(At first glance, the red heifer does not appear to be unique in this respect, as we find that the scapegoat of Yom Kippur is also killed outside the Temple [as Ramban notes—see Classic Questions].

However, the two cases are not entirely similar, since: a.) Some of the procedures concerning the scapegoat are performed inside the Temple [such as its selection via lottery (Vayikra 16:7-10) and the confession of the High Priest that is made upon it (ibid. v. 21).] All the procedures of the red heifer, however, are done entirely outside the Temple. b.) The reason why the scapegoat is taken outside the Temple is documented clearly in scripture—to "carry upon itself all their sins to an uninhabited land" [ibid. v. 22]. No explanation is offered, however, for why the red heifer should be offered specifically outside the Temple, which is totally irrational for a holy offering.)

The Red Heifer and The Evil Inclination

Based on the above, we can now explain why Rashi did not write that the mitzvah of the red heifer is criticized by the "evil inclination," as he states in the case of other suprarational commands:

It is quite understandable that G‑d, Who cannot be grasped by the human mind, may issue commands that likewise cannot be grasped. What is difficult to understand is a mitzvah that has both rational and irrational elements. In such a case, the evil inclination (or the nations) may argue: "Why would G‑d give you a command that appears to make sense, and yet also does not make sense? Does G‑d want you to relate to this command or not? Why has He made it so confusing?" And this argument is so strong that a person might want to reject the mitzvah entirely, so Rashi stresses (in Parshas Acharei), "you have no right to exempt yourselves."

However, the slaughter and offering of the red heifer outside the Temple makes no sense at all. Hence, the evil inclination is lacking a solid argument, because everyone understands that G‑d's command is likely not to make any sense. The only difficulty that might arise is ridicule from others, as Rashi writes: "Satan and the nations of the world cause grief to the Jewish people, saying, 'What is this commandment? What purpose does it have?'" But since there is no real challenge against the observance of this mitzvah, Rashi was not concerned that a person might "exempt himself" totally from it. Rather, Rashi writes that to overcome the taunting of others, one merely needs to bear in mind that it is "My personal decree," and therefore it is unnecessary to ponder the meaning of this mitzvah ("You do not have permission to ponder over it"). It should be carried out simply because it is the will of G‑d.

(Based on Likutei Sichos vol. 8, p. 123ff.)