Chukat: The Red Heifer

The 613 commandments given by God on Mount Sinai are generally divided into two categories: misphatim (laws) and chukim (decrees). Mishpatim are rules with a clear benefit, for example “Do not murder,” “Do not steal.” Chukim defy rational comprehension.

The Torah portion, Chukat, begins with the most perplexing of all chukim: the red heifer, a monochrome cow whose ashes are used to purify an individual who came into contact with a corpse. Paradoxically, the person who prepares the red heifer’s ashes becomes impure. So does the rare bovine (there have only been nine red heifers in Jewish history) counteract impurity or convey it? Even King Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived, was confounded by this mystery.

What meaning can we take from such an opaque decree? The Ohr Ha Chaim (b.1696, Morocco) says that it is the law’s incomprehensibility that actually helps us comprehend it. “When we fulfill a commandment which is completely beyond our understanding, this is equivalent to a declaration of faith in God and in His Torah.” If all the mitzvot were rational, then being a pious Jew would require no more than common sense.

The first of the Ten Commandments declares “I am the Lord your God.” According to Maimonides (b. 1138, Spain), “To acknowledge this truth is a positive command.” Following laws that don’t seem to make sense is the ultimate demonstration of faith in our Creator. The Ohr Ha Chaim concludes, “Who knows if God did not present this commandment as a chuk in order to enable us to make such a declaration by means of observing it.”

May we be strengthened to follow our Creator’s rules when we understand them and when we don’t!

Image: Red Angus bull born at the Temple Institute’s Farm, at an undisclosed location in Israel

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