Red Heifer Provides Guidance for Mitzvot


Some things in life are readily understood, while others have to be taken on faith.

Through the principle of cause and effect, I know that if I accidentally spill boiling water on my arm, it will burn my skin. I walk carefully with my cup of coffee as a result.

But I trust that doing the right thing — whether in business, health or family affairs — will benefit me and my loved ones. I don't know this to be true; instead, I take it on faith.

As the Torah represents the Divine model of how life should be lived in this physical world, it unsurprisingly relates to both reason and faith. We rationally understand the mitzvah and custom to eat matzah on Passover: Our forefathers did so as they escaped Egypt; we therefore do so as well both to remember and relive what transpired in the past.

And when it comes to those things that are beyond understanding, we can look at this week's Torah portion for guidance, deriving inspiration from the curious subject of the red heifer.

Practically everything about the red heifer and its laws is supra-rational. It had to be completely red; according to the Mishnah, two black hairs would be enough to disqualify it. It had to be completely burned, and its ashes, when mixed with "living water" –whether from a spring, a free-flowing river or a mikvah — and some other ingredients would confer ritual purity on the Tabernacle, its utensils and anyone who had been rendered impure by touching a deceased body or other specific occurrences.

But while the red heifer is the source of ritual purity, everyone who had anything to do with its preparation was paradoxically rendered impure. This is why the Torah describes this set of laws as a chok, a Divine decree that surpasses rational understanding. Just as the subjects of a king should obey an edict simply because it was issued from the palace, so, too, does the observance of the mitzvah of the red heifer not depend on any rational logic.

Other commandments also classify as decrees, such as those associated with kosher dietary practices. Why is a pig not kosher, but a cow is? Because the Almighty said so.

The red heifer, though, is unique, because the Torah also describes it as chukat hatorah, the decree of the Torah. It's as if the red heifer is identified as the root of all that was given at Mt. Sinai. The medieval commentator Rashi explains this seemingly incredulous concept — after all, we have no need for a red heifer today because we don't have a Temple to purify, and other commandments, such as loving one's neighbor as oneself or the prohibition against idolatry, are obviously more practical and fundamental — by saying that the Jewish people might fall into a trap set by other nations, who question this particular commandment and the reason behind it. So the Torah comes to tell us that this is a decree from on high, and we are not permitted to question it.

Chasidic thought goes deeper, saying that the irrationality of the red heifer presents a paradigm for all other commandments. For even when those things that can rationally be understood, such as the prohibitions against murder, kidnapping and theft, appear in the Torah, they are also commands of the Almighty.

This gets to the root of living a Jewish life, which begins with the recognition that human beings are fallible, that reason can only go so far. Above us all is the Omnipresent One, the Holy One, Blessed be He, Who provides us a blueprint by which we are able to purify ourselves and the world around us.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is the editor News. Email him at: jrunyan@