Three Kinds of Mitzvos

There are three categories of mitzvos in the Torah: mishpatim, eidus, and chukim.1 Mishpatim are mitzvos whose observance is required even by human intellect. With regard to eidus, though logic alone would not mandate their observance, we can understand their rationale once they have been commanded by the Torah. Chukim, by contrast, are mitzvos which have no intellectual basis. Indeed, they contradict reason, and so must be observed with kabbalas ol, acceptance of G‑d’s yoke.

In mishpatim and eidus, G‑d’s will has been confined and enclothed in intellect to the extent that our thought processes can appreciate it. With regard to chukim, by contrast, G‑d’s will retains its transcendent nature. Even though they exist within our material framework, the chukim reflect the essence of G‑d’s will, which is connected directly to G‑d’s essence.2 This is why they cannot be grasped by mortal intellect.

Similarly, the observance of chukim requires a commitment stemming from the essence of one’s will, reflecting the kabbalas ol and bittul which are rooted in the essence of the soul, and which transcend one’s conscious powers.

In this light, a connection can also be drawn to the Alter Rebbe’s interpretation,3 which associates chukim with engraving (chakikah in Hebrew). Engraved letters possess an advantage over written letters, for engraved letters are part of the substance on which they are engraved. Writtenletters, by contrast, are merely added to the surface on which they appear.

This also reflects the advantage of chukim over eidus and mishpatim. Eidus and mishpatim —from the perspective of both G‑d (the Commander) and man (the commanded) — do not represent the expression of will in a pure sense. Instead, will is mixed with intellect. Chukim, by contrast, reflect the expression of man’s and G‑d’s essential will, and connect the essence of man’s soul to the essence of G‑d without the addition of any external factors.

Beyond the Ken of Knowledge

The fundamental example of a chok is the mitzvah of the red heifer. With regard to this mitzvah, even King Shlomo, who had grasped the most sublime truths and was able to comprehend the rationale for the other chukim, said:4

I was able to comprehend all [the other difficult passages of the Torah], but with regard to the passage of the red heifer, I asked, I researched and I sought. I said:5 “I will become wise,” [but I saw] that it was distant from me.

The rationale for this mitzvah was revealed to Moshe, our teacher, alone, as the Midrash states:6 “The Holy One, blessed be He, told Moshe: ‘To you alone will I reveal the rationale7 for the red heifer.’”

This is one of the reasons why the Torah introduces the chok of the red heifer with the phrase:8 “This is the statute of the Torah.” The Torah uses such wording rather than “This is the statute of the heifer,” or “This is the statute of the sin offering” because the red heifer reflects the Torah in its totality.9 For the essence of all the mitzvos, even the mishpatim and eidus, is G‑d’s transcendent will. With regard to the other mitzvos, however, G‑d’s will is enclothed in intellect. Nevertheless, the essence of even those mitzvos remains transcendent.10

In the mitzvah of the red heifer, this quality is overtly revealed. For the mitzvah of the red heifer is not enclothed within reason. Therefore, this mitzvah represents the Torah in its totality.

There are two unique dimensions to the offering of the red heifer:11 a) it makes the pure impure while it purifies the impure, and b) it is offered outside the camp.

We can assume that these unique dimensions reveal a quality associated with the essence of the soul, and relate to the Torah in its totality.

The impetus which spurs the essence of the soul to this service is sparked by Moshe, for only to him was the motivating principle revealed. And it is Moshe who conveys inspiration to all Jews.

To underscore this dynamic, G‑d commanded Moshe:8 “Speak to the children of Israel, that they shall bring you a red heifer.” It was Elazar the priest who offered the red heifer and carried out all the preparations for the sacrifice. Nevertheless, the Torah emphasizes that the heifer was to be brought to Moshe, for it was he who inspired the Divine service that represents the spiritual counterpart of this offering. For this reason, the sacrifice is always referred to as the red heifer offered by Moshe.12 Moreover, each of the eight red heifers offered during the era of the Second Beis HaMikdash, and even the final one to be offered by Mashiach used — or will use — the ashes of red heifer offered by Moshe in the desert.13

Pure, Impure

The Midrash states14 that when G‑d told Moshe Rabbeinu about the impurity resulting from contact with a human corpse, Moshe’s face turned color. “How will such a person regain ritual purity?” he wondered.

(Moshe was not as bewildered when G‑d taught him about other kinds of ritual impurity, for they are limited in nature. But the impurity stemming from contact with a corpse is the direct opposite of holiness. Holiness is associated with vitality; as long as one clings to “the living G‑d,” there is no possibility of death.15 Death reflects separation from G‑dliness, and therefore Moshe was bewildered.)

G‑d resolved this question for Moshe by teaching him the laws of the red heifer, for the ashes of the red heifer overturn even this type of impurity. The sprinkling of its ashes draws down the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy, which transcend all limitations and remove all blemishes.16

For this reason, the red heifer is referred to as a chok. For within the ordinary limits of the spiritual cosmos (i.e., within both the private world of each human being, and within the world at large), it is impossible to bring purity to such a level. For “who can render the impure, pure? Only the One,”17 for He is not bound by any limits.

On this basis, we can also understand why the red heifer is offered outside the camp, in contrast to all other sacrifices, which were offered within the Beis HaMikdash. The Alter Rebbe explains18 that all the other sacrifices atone for unintentional sins, these being a result of the “intensification [of the influence] of the animal soul [rooted in kelipas] nogah.19 Therefore they are offered within the Beis HaMikdash.

The red heifer, by contrast, atones for the ritual impurity stemming from a corpse, the very lowest form of impurity, below even kelipas nogah. Accordingly, it is offered outside the camp, for it purifies even those levels outside the realm of holiness by revealing a light that transcends the limits of the spiritual cosmos.

Beyond Self-Concern

To draw down a light which is above the limits of the spiritual cosmos, one must tap a level of the soul which goes beyond all limits, the level of yechidah, which is expressed through bittul. To put it simply: mesirus nefesh, self-sacrifice, is necessary. A person must put his own concerns aside, go outside the camp, take a cow (indeed, one which is red20 ) and prepare it as a sacrifice, knowing that he himself will thereby become impure. All this to enable other Jews to become pure.

A person has to be willing to ignore his own concerns to do a favor for another Jew. Moreover, the help which he offers must be given freely, without thought of personal benefit. Our Sages teach:21 “More than the donor gives to the recipient, the recipient gives to the donor.” But when a person gives with such thoughts in mind, he has not transcended his limits, and so it is impossible for him to draw down G‑d’s essence.

When does a person draw down G‑d’s essence? When he does a favor for another person despite the knowledge that he will thereby become impure.22

(G‑d will certainly repay him several times over for his troubles, but this is not his concern. He should be willing to make the effort despite the fact that he thereby becomes impure.)

This lack of self-concern is the chok engraved in the very core of his being, and it draws down the transcendent dimensions of G‑dliness. For only the essence of the soul can draw down G‑d’s essence.

The above concepts enable us to appreciate the ramifications of the two unique dimensions of the laws regarding the red heifer: that it makes the impure pure while making the pure impure, and that it is offered outside the camp.

To explain:

a) Through the Divine service associated with the chukim, we reveal the essence of the soul. For the bittul involved in enabling another Jew to purify himself even though it requires leaving the camp and becoming impure oneself expresses the essence of the soul.

b) This relates to the Torah in its totality, for the purpose of the Torah is to take humanity above all limits, enabling us to subdue our personal “I.” This includes not only the “I” of the body, but also the “I” of the soul. This self-sacrifice is expressed through ahavas Yisrael (the love for a fellow Jew), which is the totality of the Torah.23

The potential for such a commitment stems from Moshe Rabbeinu. He was the epitome of selflessness, and inspired all Jews to manifest bittul.

Positive Self-Concern

On several occasions, it has been explained24 that the Torah fuses opposites. A similar concept applies in the present context: one’s efforts to reach out to another Jew must be coupled with a concern for one’s own refinement.

It is written:25 “When you see a naked person, you should cover him, but you should not turn away from your own flesh.” Mitzvos are described with the analogy of garments.26 Thus the verse can be interpreted as meaning “When you see a naked person — one who has no mitzvos in which to clothe himself — you should clothe him. Inspire him to observe the mitzvos, to wear tefillin and tzitzis.” At the same time, however, one cannot “turn away from one’s own flesh.”

The implication is that one must realize that one’s makeup is materialistically inclined. And one must carry out a process of refinement that includes spiritual counterparts to each of the three steps involved in preparing flesh to be eaten: soaking, salting, and washing.27

Since the mitzvah of the red heifer represents “the totality of the Torah,” it also alludes to this concept. This is reflected in the fact that the ashes of the red heifer offered by Moshe were divided into three portions:28 One was used to purify the impure. One portion was set aside to purify the priests who would offer subsequent red heifers. And a third portion was set aside as “a testimonial.”

One might ask: What is the purpose of a testimonial?

In terms of our Divine service, this question can be answered as follows: Because of the many rigors involved in communal work and outreach efforts, one may forget about oneself. Therefore a testimonial is necessary to remind us that the impurity associated with death should not be allowed to penetrate into our own lives, and require us to use of the ashes of the red heifer.29

Summing Up

To summarize:

a) When one sees a Jew who does not appear to be clinging to the living G‑d, and who looks spiritually lifeless, one might think that the person is beyond hope. The red heifer teaches us that this is not so. Moshe Rabbeinu endowed us with the power to purify every Jew, even one who has come into contact with death.30

b) The yetzer hora can argue: “It’s true that the potential has been granted for such service, but why must you perform it? Why lower yourself to such a level? After all, our Sages teach that31 a person is never told to sin in order to enable a colleague to benefit.

In reply, we are told that this is “the statute of the Torah,” i.e., a principle upon which the entire Torah revolves. One must be willing to sacrifice oneself for a colleague. Until one is willing to make such a sacrifice, one is lacking a connection to the Torah in its totality.

c) A person can err and think that the success of his outreach efforts is due to his personal talents. To counter such thoughts, he is reminded that before offering a red heifer, one must be purified with the ashes of the red heifer which Moshe offered. Each person must realize that he is only an agent, and that his potential for success is generated by Moshe.

d) One might wish to devote oneself entirely to the purification of others, without concentrating on oneself. To prevent such an error, the Torah teaches us to keep a portion of the ashes of the red heifer as a testimonial, reminding us to focus energies inward as well as outward.

(Adapted from Sichos Shabbos Parshas Chukas, 5710,
Shabbos Parshas Chukas-Balak, 5712)