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Parshas Chukas


Chukat begins with an account of the Red Heifer, a strange practice whose object was the purification of those who had become contaminated through contact with the dead. The heifer was burned, and its ashes, mixed with water, sprinkled on those who had become defiled. But the paradox was that though it purified them, it made impure all those who were involved in its preparation. Thus it is called, in the Sidra’s second verse, a chukah (“ordinance”)—a technical term meaning, “law for which no reason can be given.” Rashi gives this explanation for the word, but his comment has some unusual features which the Sicha first points out, and then explains, showing that it is intelligible only if we distinguish two different kinds of chukah.

1. Rashi’s Comment Analyzed

“And the L-rd spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is the ordinance (chukat) of the Torah which the L-rd has commanded….”1

Rashi interprets the phrase, “this is the ordinance of the Torah” thus:

“Because Satan and the nations of the world provoke Israel, saying, ‘what is the meaning of this commandment to you and what is its reason?,’ therefore it is described as an ‘ordinance’ it is a decree about which you have no right to speculate.”

But there are difficulties here:

(i) From the words of Rashi—“therefore it is described as an ‘ordinance’”—it is apparent that he intended not to explain the meaning of the word “ordinance” itself—which he has already done previously on many occasions.2 (And even though he has not done so previously in the book of Bamidbar, it is not as if he suspected that readers of his commentary would have forgotten his earlier explanation, because the word “ordinance” occurs earlier in Bamidbar3 and passes without comment from Rashi.) Rather, Rashi wants to explain the fact that it appears to be superfluous, since the phrase “this is the law” would have been sufficient.

And if this is so, since the reader already knows the meaning of “ordinance,” a brief explanation would have served. Why then does Rashi add, at length, the comments about Satan and the nations of the world, which he has already made several times previously?

(ii) Also, there are several differences between Rashi’s answer here, and in earlier places, which require understanding.

In earlier comments the agent provocateur is the “evil inclination”; here it is “Satan.”

In these earlier places, he is represented as “raising objections”4 or “caviling”5; Here, as “provoking.”

And in one earlier comment, one is said to be forbidden to “exempt oneself”6from the ordinances; here one is forbidden to “speculate about them.”

(iii) If our earlier reasoning is correct, Rashi’s comment applies only to the seeming superfluity of the word “ordinance.” Why then should it bear the heading7 “this is the ordinance of the law,” as if Rashi intended to explain the whole phrase?

2. Within Reason and Beyond

The explanation is as follows:

The wording of the phrase, “this is the ordinance of the law” suggests that the law of the Red Heifer is the only ordinance in the Torah. But surely there are other ordinances (mentioned as such by Rashi), like the prohibition of eating the meat of pig or wearing clothes made of a mixture of wool and linen.8Therefore, we are forced to say that there is a special class of ordinance, of which the Red Heifer is the only example; that is, that there are two kinds of ordinance:

(i) those which could in principle be understood by human intelligence, but details of which are beyond comprehension;

(ii) those which are entirely beyond the scope of human understanding.

The phrase “this is the ordinance of the law” is thus intended to indicate that the law of the Red Heifer is alone in belonging to the second category.

Therefore when Rashi brings examples (in Vayikra9) of ordinances, he mentions the prohibitions of the meat of the pig and of clothes made of wool and linen mixture, and the waters of purification, but he does not include the Red Heifer, since that belongs to an entirely separate category.

The “waters of purification” (water mingled with the ashes of the Red Heifer) is something whose principle can be understood rationally. For, just as purification through immersion in a Mikvah is a notion which Rashi never classifies as an “ordinance,” because it is quite reasonable that waters of the Mikvah have the power to cleanse spiritually; similarly, the “waters of purification” can have equal effect. Their only peculiarity lies in the detail that only a few drops of it suffice to purify, whereas the Mikvah requires total immersion.

Hence the waters belong to the first class of ordinances—decrees which are partially intelligible.

But the laws of the Red Heifer itself are entirely beyond understanding. It cannot be construed simply as a kind of burnt offering, since:

(i) no part of the Red Heifer was offered up at the altar;

(ii) all the actions involving the Red Heifer were to be done “outside the three camps”;10 whereas all the offerings were made specifically within them;

(iii) the Red Heifer is not even analogous to the goat of Azazel11 which, (besides its preliminaries being conducted within the camp,) was something for which a partial explanation was given (“and the goat shall bear forth on it their iniquities unto a desolate land’’12).

And it has the following exceptional features that the goat of Azazel did not:

(i) it was to be carried out by the Deputy High Priest;13

(ii) its blood was to be sprinkled seven times towards the front of the Ohel Moed;14

(iii) it was called a “sin offering” to show that it was similar to holy things.15

In short, the Red Heifer does not belong to the first category of ordinance for it cannot be even partially understood.

3. G‑d and Man

In the light of this, we can understand why Rashi uses expressions here (“Satan” as opposed to “evil inclination”: “Provokes” in place of “raising objections”; and “forbidden to speculate” instead of “forbidden to exempt oneself from them”) which do not occur in his other explanations of the word “ordinance.”

It is clear that G‑d’s intellect surpasses man’s, so that if we are told by G‑d that a given commandment cannot be humanly understood, there is no ground on which the evil inclination can argue from its unintelligibility to its non-Divine origin. For, why should finite man be able to comprehend infinite G‑d?

But when a commandment is partially open to human understanding, the evil inclination and the nations of the world do have (albeit fallacious) grounds for “arguing” or “raising objections” that it is not Divine: For how could G‑d command something which on the one hand was accessible to human reason and on the other hand was inaccessible to it? They would therefore argue that they are not Divine, and not binding on the Jew.

But since the Red Heifer is entirely inaccessible to reason, it cannot be “refuted” by the evil inclination or the nations of the world. All they can do is to “provoke” the Jew by saying “what meaning has this commandment for you, and what is its reason?” Admittedly you have to obey the word of G‑d, but in doing so you are doing something which to the human mind is completely meaningless and irrational.

Thus Rashi uses the word “Satan” instead of the “evil inclination”—for the skeptical voice seeks here only to trouble16 a Jew at the moment of acting, not to dissuade him from it at all.

And thus he does not say, “it is forbidden to ‘exempt yourself’ from the command” (for a case cannot be made out for exemption); but, that “it is forbidden ‘to speculate’ about its rationale,” and instead perform it with joy as if one understood it completely.

The reason is (as Rashi continues), that the Red Heifer is a “decree” of G‑d: That is, that G‑d Himself is telling us not to be perturbed by the absence of a rationale, and to do it simply because G‑d so decrees. This is the only way that it can be properly fulfilled.

We can now understand why Rashi cites the whole phrase “this is the ordinance of the law” as his heading: For it is this phrase which makes it clear that this ordinance is different from all others; and this is what underlines the nuances of Rashi’s explanation.

(Source: Likkutei Sichot, Vol. VIII pp. 123-7)