“In everything that G‑d taught Moses, He would tell him both the manner of contamination and the manner of purification. When G‑d came to the laws concerning one who comes in contact with a dead body, Moses said to Him: ‘Master of the universe! If one is thus contaminated, how may he be purified?’ G‑d did not answer him. At that moment the face of Moses turned pale.
When G‑d came to the section of the red heifer, He said to Moses: ‘This is its manner of purification.’ Said Moses to G‑d: ‘Master of the universe! This is a purification?’ Said G‑d: ‘Moses, it is a chok, a decree that I have decreed, and no creature can fully comprehend My decrees.’ (Midrash Rabbah)”
“The beginning of this week’s parashah presents the description of the red heifer ritual. In a nutshell, a perfectly unblemished red heifer must be killed, certain rituals performed with it, and its body burned to ashes. Those involved in the preparation of these ashes become ritually impure. The ashes, however, are mixed with water and sprinkled on those who have become impure through contact with the dead in order to render them pure again. The strangeness of the whole procedure did not escape the attention of the sages.
A passage in Midrash Tanhuma has Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai explaining the ritual to a non-Jew in a very ‘magical’ way. His students then say to him: ‘You may explain it that way to him, but what do you say to us?’ He answers: ‘The dead body does not literally make impure, and the water with the ashes does not literally effect purity. Rather, it is the decree of the King of Kings. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: Hukkah hakkakti (I have made a decree), I have issued an edict, and you may not violate My edict.'”
“Parashat Chukat opens with a description of the parah adumah — often referred to as the red heifer. The ashes of this sacrifice were used for purification. The laws of the red heifer are a classic example of accepting the yoke of the commandments without explanation. The laws of the red heifer do not apply today, as they are specific to a time when the Temple is standing in Jerusalem. But those of us who rinse our hands upon leaving a cemetery or prior to entering a shiva house are observing a remnant of this law.1 Other laws for which the Torah does not give rational explanations but that are enmeshed in Jewish identity include the instruction not to wear garments that mix linen and wool, and many of the dietary restrictions. Without reasons given in the Torah, the most traditional rationale is: God said so”
“Some three and a half months ago we read in Parashat Ki Tisa about the two tablets containing the Aseret HaDibrot (Ten Commandments) that were smashed by Moshe Rabbenu on the bare rock of Har Sinai. That incident still echoes with us as we look this week at Parshat Hukat and the Para Adumah – the Red Heifer.
Commenting on the smashing of the tablets, the English commentator Bobby Hill writes, ‘No artifact however special, no persons however elevated, no land however sanctified can be confused with the Divinity … The returning leader feared that although the Golden Calf could be destroyed, the need for another replica of Holiness would not so easily be removed. The next candidate for Secondary Kedusha would be The Tablets themselves. They might now become the focus for veneration or worship. They might prove to be the ‘idolatry’ of the future.'”
“There are lots of difficult biblical stories; stories which transmit societal rules and then go about breaking them as part of the storyline. We are familiar with this phenomenon already from the earliest stories in the Torah. Early biblical society practiced a principle known as primogeniture, namely, the firstborn son was intended to carry on the familial legacy. Yet, time after time, in the patriarchal stories, it was not the firstborn who heads up the next generation but the younger son. In our haftarah, Jephthah is a character, who for all intents and purposes, was meant to be a societal outcast. He was born of an illicit relationship: ‘And Jephthah the Gileadite was a valiant warrior, and he was the son of a whore-woman, and Gilead had begotten Jephthah.’ (11:1) This did sit well with his step brothers sired by his father once he married: ‘And Gilead’s wife bore him son, and the wife’s sons grew up and they drove Jephthah out and said to him: ‘You shall not inherit your father’s house, for you are the son of another woman.” (11:2) Jephthah was forced to flee and to live on the fringe of society. The story obviously does not end here for Jephthah becomes a ‘strongman’ who is called upon to save the nation from its enemies and to serve both as its leader and savior.”