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Parshat Chukat: An Abundance of Mystery  


Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking the Torah Text – Bamidbar, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Unlocking the Torah Text Bamidbar Cover


With the phrase Zot chukat haTorah, “This is the statute of the Torah,”God introduces the laws surrounding the purifying ritual of the para aduma, the red heifer.

In summary, the Torah mandates that an individual who comes into close proximity with a human corpse enters a seven-day state of tuma, ritual impurity. On the third and seventh day of this period, as an essential step in the process of purification, a solution containing spring water and the ashes of a red heifer are sprinkled upon the contaminated individual. At the end of the seven-day period, after immersing in a mikva, a natural pool of water, the individual completes his process of purification.

In a perplexing turnabout, the Torah also mandates that those involved in the manufacturing of the red heifer solution and its application upon the impure individual experience their own brief period of tuma (ritual impurity).The ashes of the red heifer thus possess the unique, puzzling capacity l’taher et hateme’im u’l’tamei et hatehorim, “to purify the defiled [the subjects of the ritual] and to defile the pure [the performers of the ritual].”



Fundamental questions emerge as we confront one of the deepest mysteries of the Torah.

What is the significance of the red heifer and why do its ashes, mixed in a solution with spring water, effect purification?

Why does the para aduma solution “defile the pure even as it purifies the defiled”?

Are we consigned to accept the ritual of the para aduma as a commandment without rational basis or can lessons be learned even from this seemingly “magical” mitzva?




Once again we find ourselves squarely in the realm of chukim (statutes), laws of the Torah that seem to defy logical explanation. While we have entered this arena in our studies before, for the first time we find ourselves at the core of this mysterious realm. More than any other set of Torah laws, the ritual of the red heifer, introduced by the text itself as chukat haTorah, “the statute of the Torah,” has come to symbolize God’s will at its most unfathomable.

Numerous sources in rabbinic literature attest to the depth of the mystery surrounding the para aduma. To cite a few:

1. King Solomon, the wisest man in history, was able to unravel all the mysteries of the Torah, with the exception of one. Concerning the laws of the red heifer, he was forced to admit, “I thought I would become wise, but it is beyond me.”

2. In response to the challenges of an idolater, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai offered an explanation of the laws of para aduma. Afterwards, his students objected: “Our teacher, you have pushed him away with a reed [you have given a weak argument]. What, however, will you say to us?”

Rabbi Yochanan responded, “By your lives, the dead do not defile and the waters [of the red heifer] do not purify. Rather, the Holy One Blessed Be He has decreed: ‘I have forged a statute and enacted a decree and you have no right to transgress my decree.’ ”

3. Knowing full well that the nations of the world will challenge the Jews concerning the unfathomable laws surrounding the para aduma, the Torah introduces these laws with the phrase Zot chukat haTorah, “This is the statute of the Torah. This is an edict decreed by Me, and you have no right to question it.

How then are we to approach the puzzling edicts surrounding the para aduma? Can logical analysis offer any insight into their mysteries? Do we even have the right to try?



Before we continue our analysis, it will be helpful to review a series of conclusions reached in earlier studies concerning chukim (for a more detailed discussion of these points complete with references, see Shmot: Teruma 3; see also Vayikra: Vayikra 1, Approaches II A; Shmini 4, Questions, Approaches F; Tazria-Metzora 1, Questions; Acharei-Mot 1, Approaches; Kedoshim 5b).

1. Rabbinic opinion is divided concerning the value of intellectual search within the realm of chukim. At one end of the spectrum lie those authorities who insist that chukim must be viewed not only as laws beyond our comprehension but as edicts that have no individual intrinsic purpose. The primary role of these laws, as a group, is to develop man’s loyalty to God through the cultivation of unquestioning obedience to His will.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those scholars who insist that each of God’s laws is uniquely purposeful and that the search for meaning within all mitzvot is not only allowed but encouraged. Man should make every effort, these authorities believe, to determine the fundamental reasons for each mitzva. Such study can only help us attain a more complete understanding of God’s will.

Intermediate positions along the spectrum of rabbinic opinion maintain that, while every mitzva has a reason, blind obedience to the commandments represents the highest level of relationship with the Divine. Only those unable to relate to God on this elevated plane, these scholars feel, should engage in rational investigation of the mitzvot.

2. Even those scholars who encourage rational examination of chukim clearly recognize the potential dangers of such search. Failure to determine the reason for a specific commandment, they emphasize, should never lead us to treat that mitzva lightly. We must also recognize that any rationale we do arrive at may or may not be accurate, given the limitations of our own intellectual abilities.

3. When we deal with issues related to the biblical constructs of tuma and tahara we must also overcome the problems presented by the terms themselves.  No appropriate English translation exists for the Hebrew words tuma and tahara. The commonly suggested translations “pure and impure” or “clean and unclean” carry value judgments that are not necessarily applicable.

For want of a better option, in the course of this study, we will continue to translate these terms in the usual manner, while recognizing the limitations of such translation.



As the rabbis focus on the core issues of the para aduma, their comments naturally reflect the range of opinion concerning logical analysis of divine law in general.

At one extreme are those scholars who not only acknowledge the inexplicable nature of the red heifer, but view its mystery as a commentary on the Torah as a whole.

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama, for example, lists various possible approaches to mitzvot in general, including the approach of rational search. He concludes, however, that the highest level of Torah observance is reflected in Rabbi Yochanan’s response to his students concerning the red heifer: “By your lives, the dead do not defile and the waters [of the red heifer] do not purify. Rather, the Holy One Blessed Be He has decreed ‘I have forged a statute and enacted a decree and you have no right to transgress my decree.’ ”

Blind obedience to God’s law without the need for rational explanation represents the pinnacle of religious devotion. The very inclusion of chukim in the panoply of mitzvot, Arama argues, is designed to convey this lesson and to apply it to the entire Torah. Just as we observe chukim without comprehending them, so too, we should observe all mitzvot, even those we think we understand, specifically because we are so commanded by God and not on the basis of any supposed rationale.

In a similar vein, the Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev is among those who note that the Torah does not introduce the laws of para aduma with the statement “This is the statute of the red heifer,” but rather, “This is the statute of the Torah”: “In principle, the reasons for the Torah and its laws are hidden from mankind. Man must perform and observe [the mitzvot of] the Torah simply because God commands us to perform and observe them. This truth is hinted at in the phrase ‘this is the statute of the Torah.’ The entire Torah and its mitzvot are to be considered by us as chukim.”

Another Chassidic master, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov, goes a major step further, maintaining that “belief does not require the concurrence of rational interpretation. Instead, rational interpretation requires the concurrence of belief.” To support his point, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech notes that the Talmud uses a Torah phrase to prove that an object with a three-cubit circumference also possesses, by definition, a width of one cubit. At face value, this Talmudic exercise seems superfluous. Why should a fact easily verified by physical measurement require scriptural proof? Because, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech argues, the Torah does not require logical support. Logic, however, requires the support of the Torah.



In stark contrast to those who are willing to accept the mystery of the para aduma without question, other scholars struggle to find rational meaning in this strange ritual.

An early Midrashic tradition, for example, views the red heifer as an atoning rite for the sin of the golden calf.In interpreting this Midrash, the Kli Yakar explains that full atonement can only be achieved by “digging up the roots of sin.” Only by addressing the underlying cause of a transgression can one hope to avoid its recurrence. The burning of the red heifer symbolizes the destruction of wealth, the abundance of which was a fundamental cause of the sin of the golden calf.

While the Rambam also views the para aduma as a ritual of atonement, he parts company with the Midrash concerning the sin for which the ritual atones:

The red heifer is called a sin offering because it effects the purification of persons who have become impure through contact with a human corpse and enables them to enter the Sanctuary…. Once a person became impure he would have been forever forbidden to enter the Sanctuary and to eat hallowed foods had it not been for this heifer which bore the burden of his sin.

Apparently, according to the Rambam, the very phenomena of tumat met and the distance from God caused by such impurity create the need for atonement. Even when caused for valid reasons, distance from God is a “sin.”

Comparing the ashes of the red heifer to the sent goat of Yom Kippur (see Vayikra: Acharei Mot 1) and other similar rituals, the Rambam also suggests a logical explanation for the para aduma’s puzzling capacity to “purify the defiled and defile the pure.” Just as the sent goat acquires the taint of sin by symbolically acquiring the transgressions of the Israelites during the Yom Kippur service, so too, during the ritual of the red heifer, sin is figuratively removed from the defiled individual and transferred to the waters of the para aduma solution. To underscore this symbolic transference, the solution now gains the potential to convey its own “acquired impurity” to anyone with whom it comes into contact.

Numerous other commentaries offer extensive and imaginative interpretations of the ceremonies associated with the red heifer. The Sforno, for example, suggests a pedagogic approach. Through the combination of the antithetical symbols of ashes (fire) and water in the para aduma solution, the Torah teaches that the path of tshuva, return from sin, sometimes requires bold counterbalancing action. An individual who falls into a pattern of extreme behavior may need the temporary corrective of acting at the other extreme in order to return to the desired middle path. The union of physical opposites in the “waters of the red heifer” thus symbolizes that the balance between behavioral excesses will produce the “golden mean.” Many other details surrounding the para aduma, the Sforno maintains, can also be explained by this approach.

The “first and irreplaceable condition for living our lives on a higher plane,” Hirsch maintains, is “freedom of will in moral matters.”Man’s perception of such freedom, however, is endangered when he confronts the fact of his own inevitable death. If death destroys the entire human being; if man, like all other organic creatures, lives under the spell of this “irresistible, overpowering force,”then moral freedom is only an illusion and moral laws become meaningless.

Only by recognizing that he operates simultaneously in two arenas – a limited physical sphere and an unlimited moral, immortal sphere – can man transcend his confrontation with death.

The laws of tuma and tahara throughout the Torah serve as correctives, designed to sensitize man to his moral freedom whenever he is challenged by physical limitations. In effect, God exhorts man: “Be not deceived by corpse and death, become free, become immortal not in spite of, but together with all that is physical…remain immortal master of your mortal body….”

Hirsch explains that the various details of the para aduma ritual are constructed to help man regain his equilibrium after a close encounter with death. The unblemished red heifer, for example, having never borne a yoke, represents the uncontrolled physical-animal nature of man. The handing over of the animal to the Kohen represents an individual’s free-willed, conscious choice to integrate his physical nature into a world governed by the laws of the Torah. Both the body’s eventual return to the earth, symbolized by the burning of the red heifer into ash, and the eternal continuity of the soul lie within the scope of God’s plan for mankind.

With great detail and care, Hirsch proceeds to show how each aspect of the para aduma ceremony further teaches that gaining proximity to God on earth requires the joining of both aspects of man’s existence. “The laws of God’s Torah always presuppose the mortal body joined to the immortal part of man’s being.”



No scholarly exercise within our tradition more clearly showcases the relationship of the Jewish people to the totality of Jewish law than our age-old, continuing struggle with the ritual of para aduma.

Both those who accept this mysterious rite with blind obedience and those who strive to pierce its mysteries view this difficult section of Torah text as relevant to our lives, transmitting lessons concerning our relationship with God, our world and ourselves.


Points to Ponder

Another observation concerns the para aduma’s unique capacity l’taher et hateme’im u’l’tamei et hatehorim, “to purify the defiled and to defile the pure.”

Perhaps what we have labeled as a unique phenomenon is not really so unique, after all. Our world is, in fact, filled with phenomena that can cut both ways – phenomena that, dependent upon the situation and the players involved, can give rise to either positive or negative results, and sometimes even to both simultaneously.

As a case in point, I have often felt that many “open,” heterogeneous Modern Orthodox communities, such as the ones that I have been privileged to serve, have the capacity, for want of better terminology, l’taher et hateme’im u’l’tamei et hatehorim.

Tolerant, welcoming and nonjudgmental, these congregations carry the real potential to draw individuals and families of varied religious backgrounds closer to Judaism and its practices. Many individuals who might well have felt uncomfortable in more rigidly Orthodox communities find themselves at home in these congregations, drawn in by the warm friendship and acceptance shown to them and by the acts of communal kindness and sharing that they observe. Their developing congregational affiliation often leads to a growing interest in Jewish tradition, resulting in greater personal study and observance.

At the same time, however, “open” Orthodox communities can prove challenging at the other end of the spectrum. The communal “tolerance” that proves to be such an asset in attracting the less affiliated can encourage diminished observance among the “already affiliated.” Communal standards of religious practice are invariably relaxed, as an atmosphere of “live and let live” is fostered. Behaviors that might be seen as questionable in other Orthodox communities become commonplace, even among those who would have adhered more strictly to the letter of the law had they lived elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong….

I love the communities in which I have served as rabbi. Even more, I consider such communities essential to the fabric of Jewish life, presenting Orthodoxy in a welcoming fashion and providing a rich, dynamic religious texture that cannot be experienced elsewhere.

Nonetheless, these communities also offer an ongoing challenge to rabbis and congregants alike. Together, they must work to maintain a healthy balance between the tolerance that defines the community’s character and the potential relaxation of religious standards that can threaten its spiritual growth.