|This D’var Torah is in Z’chus L’Ilui Nishmas my sister Kayla Rus Bas Bunim Tuvia A”H, my grandfather Dovid Tzvi Ben Yosef Yochanan A”H, my uncle Reuven Nachum Ben Moshe & my great aunt Rivkah Sorah Bas Zev Yehuda HaKohein.
It should also be in Zechus L’Refuah Shileimah for:
-My father Bunim Tuvia Ben Channa Freidel
-My grandfather Moshe Ben Breindel, and my grandmothers Channah Freidel Bas Sarah, and Shulamis Bas Etta
-Mordechai Shlomo Ben Sarah Tili
-Noam Shmuel Ben Simcha
-Chaya Rochel Ettel Bas Shulamis
-Nechama Hinda Bas Tzirel Leah
-Amitai Dovid Ben Rivka Shprintze
-And all of the Cholei Yisrael
-It should also be a Z’chus for an Aliyah of the holy Neshamos of Dovid Avraham Ben Chiya Kehas—R’ Dovid Winiarz ZT”L, Miriam Liba Bas Aharon—Rebbetzin Weiss A”H, as well as the Neshamos of those whose lives were taken in terror attacks (Hashem Yikom Damam), and a Z’chus for success for Tzaha”l as well as the rest of Am Yisrael, in Eretz Yisrael and in the Galus.
חֻקַּת ● Chukas
● Why does Parshas Chukas even begin with the decree of Parah Adumah? Why does the Torah choose this moment to teach any Chukim at all? ●
“His Indecipherable Decrees”
With Parshas Chukas, the journey of the B’nei Yisrael through the desert finally resumes. Despite the oft quoted “tenet” that the Torah is not bound by chronology1, virtually all of the events of Parshas Chukas fit a basic sequence, having taken place at the end of the B’nei Yisrael’s forty year period of wandering. These events include the deaths of Moshe’s siblings, Moshe’s hitting of the rock at Mei Merivah, the nation’s failed attempt to pass through the land of Edom, the nation’s complaining followed by the attack of the serpent swarm, and the B’nei Yisrael’s wars with the nations of Emori and Bashan.
TODAY’S SITE: The Red Heifer in the Room
However, there is one topic that does not seem to bear any connection to the rest, neither in theme nor in sequence, and that is the opening topic for which the entire Sidrah is named, the quintessential “Chukas HaTorah,” or statute of the Torah, a ritual known as “Parah Adumah,” literally, the Red Heifer.2
A Chok, we’re taught, refers to a “decree of the King” whose exact reasoning is not completely understood logically by humankind. The general enigma of the ritual of Parah Adumah is that the ashes of the cow somehow purify the impure involved in the procedure while simultaneously contaminating the Kohein Gadol with ritual impurity.
Perhaps because the Sidrah is named for this statute, it is easy to take for granted that the topic of Parah Adumah belongs right here, but as we have just mentioned, it seems wildly irrelevant to the entire rest of the Sidrah. This chapter of the Torah which revolves around Israel’s history at the end of the forty years did not have to begin with Parah Adumah. And as we’ll see in a moment, we can argue that there a couple of more appropriate locations for this topic.
IDEAL LOCATION: A Better Home for Parah Adumah?
Where might we have placed the topic of Parah Adumah? Essentially all of the laws of purity and impurity can be found in Sefer Vayikra, beginning from Parshas Sh’mini through the end of Parshas Metzora.3 The Torah could have easily placed the passage of Parah Adumah which teaches all of the laws of Tumas Meis, impurity of a human carcass, and purification from that impurity, with the other related laws. Thematically, Parah Adumah would have fit well there.
But as was mentioned, the placement of Parah Adumah next to the events of Parshas Chukas is not only thematically challenging, but apparently, it is chronologically challenging as well. Indeed, Chazal inform us that the law of Parah Adumah was one of a select few that were actually taught to the previous generation back at Marah, before the Torah was even given.4 There, the Chumash explains that Hashem provided them a “Chok”—a reference to Parah Adumah—but the Torah did not choose then to explicitly elaborate on the topic of Parah Adumah. It chose our Sidrah.
The question then is why this Mitzvah was not recorded back in Parshas Beshalach where Chazal tell us it was taught, or somewhere in Sefer Vayikra with the laws of purity and impurity?
THIS LOCATION: Looking Back
Sometimes, in order to understand the placement of any topic in the Torah, one has to look backward to the previous passage. In this case, Chukas begins with the unexpected topic of Parah Adumah, so determining its relevance by looking backward would entail revisiting the end of Parshas Korach.
The closing sections of Korach reaffirmed the roles of the Kohanim and Levi’im, by restating the Temple boundaries for each sect of Israel and discussing the various gifts that the Kohanim and Levi’im are respectively entitled to. In this vein, Ramban and Ibn Ezra both explain the Parshas Chukas is following up from the end of Korach, continuing the discussion pertaining to the Kohanim.
The connection is readily identifiable; however it is somewhat loose as there are a lot of topics pertaining to Kohanim. What makes the Parah Adumah the appropriate follow-up to the topics of Matenos Kehunah and Leviyah, the Kohanic and Levitic gifts?
Another issue with this connection is that it does not explain why we ought to begin a brand-new Sidrah with Parah Adumah. If the relevance of this topic can only be found at the end of Korach, then that is where this passage belongs. Accordingly, the new Sidrah should have rightfully begun with the passing of Miriam and the tragedy of Mei Merivah, that which is recorded immediately after Parah Adumah. Why, then, did the new Sidrah begin at the “Chukas HaTorah” of Parah Adumah?
A NEW JOURNEY: Looking Ahead
To answer this question, it no longer suffices to look backward. We have to search for relevance up ahead. And if we consider the contents of Parah Adumah and proceed further in Parshas Chukas, perhaps we can identify the deeper links between the two. Here, we will discuss two to three of those links.
What does Parah Adumah have to do with anything that follows?
- The Shift – Aharon to Elazar
The Torah tells us that the topic of Parah Adumah was issued specifically to Moshe and Aharon. It is not that often that Hashem addresses the two of them together, and if one looks closely throughout the Torah, this would be the final time that the Torah records that Aharon would be addressed by Hashem for the communication of a law.
What is also interesting is that although the rite of Parah Adumah, for generations, would be carried out by the Kohein Gadol, when Hashem issued the command here, He explicitly appointed not Aharon, but his son Elazar HaKohein, the S’gan or the deputy Kohein.5 Sifsei Chachamim points out that this appointment in the desert was a one-time exception to the rules of Parah Adumah, so that only in that generation would the S’gan manage the ritual for Parah Adumah as opposed to the acting Kohein Gadol.
Why Aharon could not perform the rite is its own discussion. Rashi cites R’ Moshe HaDarshan who suggests that Aharon could not perform the ritual for Parah Adumah as it serves to atone each generation from the Sin of the Golden Calf, and since Aharon played an unwitting role in that sin, his performance of the ritual would be in violation the dictum that “Ein Kateigor Na’aseh Saneigor”-“a prosecutor cannot be a defender.”6, 7
But, perhaps an added dimension to the apparent shift between father and son is an implicit allusion to the actual transition between Aharon and his son Elazar that would be taking place later in our own Sidrah when Aharon would ultimately pass on and the current deputy would shortly become the new Kohein Gadol, effective immeditately.8
Perhaps, this detail would explain some relevance of this law topic in our Sidrah. Of course, that would not explain how the opening topic of Parah Adumah appropriately encompasses the entirety of Parshas Chukas, but there is relevance.
- The Death of the Righteous
Rashi noticed another “connection” between Parah Adumah and our Sidrah, not the looming death of Aharon, but an earlier death, that of his older sister, Miriam. Rashi comments that the juxtaposition between Parah Adumah and Miriam’s death demonstrates a commonality that they apparently share, that just as the ritual of Parah Adumah serves as a source of atonement, so does the death of the righteous.9, 10
Here too, the connection is a loose one, because there are many rituals Parah Adumah that serve to atone, namely, most Korbanos. Why did the ritual of need to be singled out for this teaching?
PATHS CONVERGE: At Mei Merivah
So far, we have identified a couple of different connections between Parah Adumah and some of its surrounding contents, and in so doing, we have directed our attention to the deaths of two righteous siblings. On that note, it is interesting to point out that the ritual of Parah Adumah is itself a remedy to the impurity of the dead.
But perhaps, there is a unifying theme that not only considers the above connections to the deaths of Aharon and Miriam, but one that takes into account another major story in Chukas, a reference to the other looming death of another righteous individual, the final of the three siblings, our own Moshe Rabbeinu.
The major narrative of Parshas Chukas finds us at Mei Merivah.11 After Miriam passed away, the well that hydrated the B’nei Yisrael in her merit went with her. In response, the B’nei Yisrael began to pressure Moshe and Aharon regarding their new lack of water supply. Then, despite G-d’s specific instructions that Moshe and Aharon speak to the rock in order to miraculously draw water from it, perhaps under the stress of the circumstances, Moshe defied the Will of G-d and hit the rock, causing him and somehow, his brother, to immediately lose their rights to entering the Promised Land. Both of them would die before their nation would cross over into the Holy Land, Aharon in a couple of passages from this one, and Moshe, at the end of the Torah.
The M’forshim struggle to explain the true nature of the sin and why Moshe and Aharon were punished so harshly for it. Various suggestions are offered; however, in the end, there is no simple, all-satisfying solution. And at the end of everything, one cannot help but sympathize with Moshe and Aharon. Moshe and Aharon were not merely figure heads, but they were the most righteous individuals. Moshe Rabbeinu was the single greatest leaders and prophet, perhaps the hardest working individual. He never asked for his position; in fact, he was pretty much forced into it, and yet, he took his often thankless job seriously. And yet, after all of his hard work, he would not see the fruit of his own labor and lead his people toward their final destination, Hashem’s Promised Land. And, why not? Because of one misstep he took when he “collapsed” under the pressure of an impatient people. He would have to die in order to complete his mission. He would have to die for the benefit of his nation.
This relationship between Moshe’s detriment and the B’nei Yisrael’s betterment in the wake of Mei Merivah is most glaring in the passage of Shiras HaBe’er, the Song of the Well12, where the people sang, thanking Hashem for the well which His messengers Moshe and Aharon had “re-dug” for them. Indeed, the people sang, but Moshe did not sing. That is likely because the exertion which Moshe had gone through to provide this water supply for the impatient people was the source of his downfall. Indeed, it is for this reason that although the people implicitly acknowledged Moshe for retrieving the water for them in this song13, his name was omitted because indeed, he was stricken through the well.14 They thanked Moshe, yes, however, perhaps the people could not truly appreciate to the fullest extent what this well meant for Moshe and his dreams of entering the Promised Land. Sometimes, the truest degree of heroism goes unsung.
A UNIFYING PATH: The Woes of Heroes
In any event, with the impending death of Moshe Rabbeinu, paired with the deaths of his siblings, a unifying theme emerges. Parshas Chukas revolves around the unfortunate but true woes of being a hero. Why the righteous should have to suffer, especially when exerting themselves for the sake of others is a true mystery. The correlation between the anguishes of the heroes and the benefits of the people’s needs seems unfair. But again, this seems to be the pattern we find among the three righteous siblings.
Aharon lost his rights to the service of Parah Adumah for becoming a “prosecutor” and an accomplice in the Sin of the Golden Calf, all while trying to protect he nation who were truly guilty of the crime. The same nation immediately benefitted from newly granted atonement following Miriam’s death. And finally, Moshe Rabbeinu himself would continue to carry the burden of his people until his dying day when his mission would finally be fulfilled as he positioned those people who troubled him at the cusp of the land which he himself would never enter.
THE BRIDGE: Between the Chukos HaTorah and Life’s Travails
With this apparent theme identified, we can certainly return to the opening topic of Parah Adumah, for if one thinks about it, this factor of the indecipherable nature of Divine judgment is the very enigma that underlies the true Chok of Parah Adumah. Because of the Kohein Gadol’s services on behalf of the impure people, he suffers spiritual contamination, sullying himself in the process of Parah Adumah.
Thus, this topic highlights the true responsibility of the leaders and heroes, perhaps creating a crucial contrast to the end of Parshas Korach. As was mentioned, the end of Korach underscored the gifts or the privileges of the Kohanim. But, Chukas wakens us to the harsh reality that comes with leadership. As we’ve specificed in the past, Kehunah is not nearly as much about rights as it is about responsibilities. Sometimes, those responsibilities require one to get dirty with ritual contamination. Sometimes, they include carrying the burden of the people. Sometimes, they even entails being thanked less despite your exertion and self-sacrifice.
It does not seem fair at all, but that is the decree of the King. Indeed, G-d’s rulings are fundamentally Chukim, whether in the form of a decree in the Torah or a verdict in Divine Judgment. They share the common model of all Chukim, which, as we’ve explained, are none other than incomprehensible statutes from G-d by which we must live, despite the endless questions they pose to us.
THE LANDSCAPE: Chukim and the Greater Picture
Later in our Sidrah15, in the process of rescuing the B’nei Yisrael from the attacking serpent swarm, for seemingly no apparent reason, Hashem ordered Moshe to craft his own serpent on a pole so that the people should gaze at it and be spared from the venom. Somehow, it worked.
At first glance, this instruction was a Chok, because it is not at all clear why it was necessary to combat the serpents with a serpent statue. With every possible option at Hashem’s disposal, this one seems quite odd. After all, what was the logic behind this remedy? How did the sight of the serpent heal the people?
Of course, Chazal16 take us behind the curtain and revealed that despite what appears from the simple read of the story, it was apparently not the serpent that healed, nor was it truly the serpents in the first place that caused the people’s deaths. What does that mean? In other words, although “practically speaking,” being bit by the serpents threatened one’s life and gazing at Moshe’s copper serpent “magically” allowed one to be spared, there was apparently a deeper cause behind both the deaths and the people’s salvation. The serpents were tools or messengers which G-d used to punish the people for their sins and to spare them when truly repented. The serpent on the pole was designed to lead the people’s eyes heavenward so that the nation would ultimately remember to direct their hearts toward Hashem and thus, be saved.
The point though is that the otherwise indecipherable Chok of G-d had a reason, deeper than the plain action that the Chok required. Here, Chazal decoded the “ritual” of looking upward and demonstrated that there was something more to the otherwise mysterious motion which G-d required us to go through.
What is more though is that the conclusion that “it’s not the serpent that harms, nor the serpent that heals” is perfectly parallel to that which R’ Yochanan Ben Zakai taught concerning the Chukas HaTorah of Parah Adumah: “It is not the corpse that renders impurity, nor the water that restores purity. Rather, the Holy One Blessed is He has said: ‘a law I have established and a decree has been issued.’”17 Without knowing anything else—and apparently, when it comes to Chukim, we don’t need to know anything elese—it really as simple as that; G-d decreed it and so it was.
FINAL DESTINATION: Living by the “Decree”
At the end of the day, in this lifetime, we may never truly understand the larger impact and implications of much of which emerges from the Divine decree, be it an “incident” in life or a command in His Torah. The true depth of life’s struggles and Hashem’s Torah are fundamentally indecipherable. We can’t know why G-d wanted things the way they are. The effect of Chok on the upper spheres or even our own world is unknowable. We can only trust in Hashem that there is a deeper method to the seeming madness, a rhyme and reason behind that which is seemingly discordant and unreasonable.
G-d’s refusal to allow Moshe and Aharon into the Land of Israel is ultimately a Chok. The suffering of any good person, especially a self-sacrificing hero, is always a Chok. In life, we have to venture forth with this Chukim.
Thus, the Sidrah’s opening statement, “Zos Chukas HaTorah”-“This is the Decree of the Torah,”2 is a larger title, encompassing much more than the Parah Adumah alone. It is the landscape for all of life’s questions. It is the model for living with life’s questions. Accordingly, though we continue to struggle with such questions, Parah Adumah and the rest of the Chukim in our Sidrah should nonetheless guide us and inspire us toward faith in the King and His decrees, both in Torah and life at large.
May we all be Zocheh to use the construct set up by the Chukas HaTorah to proceed through life faithfully, trusting in Hashem’s Divine supervision, and that faith and trust should strengthen us, remain with us, and carry us until and into the days of Moshiach, Bimheirah Biyomeinu! Have a Great Shabbos!
-Yehoshua Shmuel Eisenberg 🙂
- Pesachim 6B
- Bamidbar 19:1-22
- Vayikra 11-15
- See Rashi to Shemos 15:25 citing Mechilta and Sanhedrin 56B.
- Rashi to Bamidbar 19:3 citing Sifrei 123; See Yoma 42B where the Gemara records the dispute as to who would actually be responsible for leading the Parah Adumah ritual for subsequent generations.
- Based on Rosh HaShannah 26A
- See Rashi’s citation of R’ Moshe HaDarshan in his second round of commentary to Bamidbar 19:3.
- This connection was suggested to me by my friend Eitan Adler.
- To Bamidbar 20:1 citing Mo’eid Katan 28A, Yerushalmi, Yoma 1:1, and Vayikra Rabbah 20:12
- The “Christian concept” of the righteous dying for the nation’s sins is apparently not a Christian concept, but was apparently taken from Chazal’s insights.
- Bamidbar 20
- Bamidbar 21:17-20
- See Rashi to 21:18.
- See Rashi’s second comment to 21:18 citing Tanchuma 21.
- Bamidbar 21:4-9
- See Rashi to 21:8 citing Rosh HaShannah 3:8; the same Mishnah can be found in the Gemara, Rosh HaShannah 29A.
- Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8