The Red Heifer- its is G-d’s will that purifies, not the magical power of a cows ashes!
This weeks parsha introduced us to what the Torah itself describes as חוקת התורה ; The ‘law’ of the Torah.
A חוק “chok” Is generally understood as a commandment whose rationale is hidden from human logic and is solely in the domain of divine understanding.
Other common examples of these are the laws of forbidden foods and the prohibition of wearing mixtures of wool and linen.
This is in contrast to משפט “ mishpat “ or “rational law”, that can be explained with human logic, for example, the prohibition against stealing, or the command to give charity.
I was bothered by what it is that is so unique about this law that allows it to merit that status of “the ‘chok’ of the Torah”- the prototype of all chukim.
How is purifying people contaminated by contact with dead with a mixture of water and the ashes of the red heifer any less logical than the prohibition against mixing wool and linen or the laws of kashrus?
Just like one could make some weak attempt to rationalize kashrus by referencing self-control or arguable health benefits, one could justify the uniqueness of such a special rare species, completely dedicated to its holy mission, being used for purity ritual.
However, when one analyzes this more carefully, there is a property of this law that is completely unique and that no weak rationalizations of that type could possibly cover: The very same ashes of that heifer that purify the impure person, also cause impurity to the priest who performs the ritual.
Whereas logic can be found to show that a particular item sprinkled in a certain way on a typical person has a certain positive effect, no logic in the world could show that the EXACT same item, sprinkled on a biologically similar person, in exactly the same way, as a rule without exception, the only difference being his previous status of purity, would have the precise opposite results.
This is what makes this law the prototype “chok.”
[I later found this idea in a number of commentators including Seforno,Rabbeinu Bachya, and even in the Midrash.]
The ashes of the heifer have NO intrinsic magical or mystical powers in their own right- they cause purity, only because God says that they should, and when the same and only G-d says that they should cause impurity, then that is EXACTLY what they do.
The Torah uses this clear example to teach us the same rule about all laws in the Torah: An item is permitted or prohibited, pure or impure, because and ONLY because, Hashem gives it that status, not because of any special magical or curative powers of that item. When Hashem’s law makes that item permitted, such as in the case of danger to life, when something is nullified in a mixture of 60 times the amount (bittul) or the once-off ruling of a bona-fide prophet, that very same item loses its forbidden status and becomes completely permitted.
And although at times the Torah permits a kohain to become impure for a relative, but he nonetheless still obtains the status of impurity, even the purifying and defiling affects of an object are completely subject to the word of God, as we see from this beautiful law- the law of the red heifer.
As the Talmudic Sage, Rav, explains so clearly [Beraishit Rabbah 44/a], Hashem doesn’t objectively really care where one slaughters an animal from:” The commandments were only given to refine people.”