Parsha Thought – Chukat

Red Heifer by Sefira Ross Courtesy of Chabad.org

“This is the decree of the Torah, which HaShem has commanded…”

Numbers 19:2

Not just a decree, but the decree. And what a complex decree it is! We begin this week’s busy Torah portion with a law that has continued to baffle scholars, sages and biblical students alike over the years: the purifying ashes of the red heifer.

The Torah states that when a person comes into contact either physically or even under the same roof as a deceased individual, they enter in to a state of impurity. It is important to note, however, that this impurity is not regarded as sin. Often times we see that something causes defilement and immediately associate sin with it. This is certainly not the case. The person who has come into contact with the corpse is restricted from entering into the Tabernacle or the Temple and cannot partake of any sacrificial offerings or eat of meal offerings until they have been purified.

Most instances of purification require a person to immerse themselves and their clothing into a mikveh of water and they will remain unclean until evening. The purification required in this case was a little more complex than the typical exposure to defilement. In order for the person to return to their “clean” state they had to be sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer that been prepared in a very specific way on the third and seventh day after their contact with the corpse.

First, the cow was inspected (at this time by Elizar, the Kohen) to ensure that it was entirely red and had never been yoked or burdened with work. Next, it was taken it outside of the camp to slaughtered and Elizar sprinkled the blood toward the Tent of Appointment.

“And the heifer shall be burned before his eyes – he burns its hide, and its flesh, and its blood, and its dung. And the priest shall take cedar wood and hyssop and scarlet, and throw them into the midst of the fire burning the heifer.”

Numbers 19:5-6

What follows next is the requirement for everyone involved up to this point to immerse themselves and their clothing into a mikveh because they have become contaminated. Finally, a different individual, one who was not contaminated, gathers the ashes and stores them for safekeeping. This act has now contaminated him, but the Torah only specifies that he must immerse his clothing. When someone needs to be cleansed from contact with a deceased human, some of the ashes are mixed with spring water and sprinkled on the individual. What is truly fascinating is that the one doing the sprinkling becomes contaminated and must immerse himself and his clothes, while the one being sprinkled becomes clean! In addition to that, whomever carries the mixture of ashes and water is rendered unclean and must immerse himself, but does not have to immerse his clothing. What a complex and confusing law!

“This shall be for them an eternal decree.”

Numbers 19:21

The statute of parah adumah, or the red heifer, belongs to a classification of laws called chukim. Traditional Judaism has classified the Torah laws into one of three categories based off of the list in Deuteronomy 4:45.1 The statutes, chukim, are said to often be laws that defy our logic or understanding and are to be observed simply because the were issued from the mouth of Elohim. They can be positive “to do” commandments such as eating matzah on pesach, eating only kosher animals, and keeping the festivals. On the other hand, they can also be negative “shall not” commandments such as the prohibition against mixing wool and linen in a garment as well as not plowing a field with a donkey and an ox together.

Our lack of the ability to understand such chukim can be a major reason for us to decide that they aren’t important. We can rationalize that since the reason isn’t clear, it’s okay if we decide not to follow them. But I believe that reason alone makes them all the more important for us to do them. 

“And I shall give them one heart, and put a new spirit within you. And I shall take the stony heart out of their flesh, and give them a heart of flesh, so that they walk in My laws (bechukotai), and guard My right-rulings (mishpatai), and shall do them. And they shall be My people and I shall be their Elohim.”

Ezekiel 11:19-20

Since there is no Temple or Tabernacle, there is no way for us to do this statute currently. It is likely that the next time this service could be performed is when the Third Temple is rebuilt and Messiah Yeshua returns. There are also many parallels between Messiah and the red heifer, but at this point, I’m not sure if I’m qualified to make those comparisons myself. The depth and understanding of this law supersedes my intellect and I’m still marveling at the wisdom required to give us such a complex ruling. But since we have been given the Ruach HaKodesh, the Holy Spirit, the laws that seem to defy our logic should be as important to us as the rational mishpatim. The mishpatim are understood as the ones that we would have figured out on our own such as do not steal, do not kill, do not lie, etc. But since the text is Ezekiel places the chukim before the mishpatim, it’s a hint that one is of a bit more importance.

“It is fitting that one should contemplate the laws of the Torah to understand their reasoning to the best of his ability. But should he find a law that he does not understand (or does not make sense to him)… he should not conclude that they are any less important, rather he must keep them and treat them with the utmost respect… 

Rambam, Me’ilah Perek 7:8

When we do because we understand, that is commendable, but when we do because we desire to come to Elohim on His terms, that is what He’s truly seeking.


1. “These are the witnesses, and the laws, and the right-rulings which Mosheh spoke to the children of Yisra’ěl after they came out of Mitsrayim,”

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