Parshat Chukat begins with the Mitzvah of the Red Cow.
“This is the decree of the Torah which Hashem has commanded, saying…” (Numbers 19:2)
The Torah then defines the Mitzvah, which involves finding a cow which is completely red and has never borne a yolk. It is slaughtered outside of the camp and then burnt in its entirety, skin, flesh and blood, along with a piece of cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread. The ashes are then mixed with water, which is used to sprinkle upon those who had contact with a corpse. These ashes were an important ingredient in the process of purification from such ritual contamination.
On the surface, this Mitzvah does not appear to be among the more intuitive commandments. Upon closer scrutiny the Mitzvah is counter intuitive and is itself a paradox.
The Sefer HaChinuch, published anonymously in 13th century Spain, and widely attributed to Rabbi Aaron HaLevi of Barcelona, endeavours to find meaning and a degree of reason to each and every Mitzvah. Sefer HaChinuch writes a list of 613 commandments, as our tradition maintains that number as the count of Mitzvot in the Torah. It then goes on to explore each and every Mitzvah in the order it appears in the Torah, offering reasoning to explain the purpose of the Mitzvah as well as listing the details of how and by whom the Mitzvah can be fulfilled.
When it comes to the Mitzvah of the Red Cow, however, Sefer HaChinuch throws up his hands, deeming it beyond him to provide insight. He writes that the sages themselves, in attempting to decipher the meaning of this Mitzvah, determined that even King Solomon, who was able to divine the purpose for every Mitzvah in the Torah, could not grasp the meaning of this one. “I said I will be wise, but it is distant from me,” King Solomon writes. (Ecclesiastes 7:23) The meaning of this verse is attributed to the Mitzvah of the Red Cow. The wisest man in history could extract the intent and deeper meaning of every Mitzvah in the Torah except for this.
Furthermore, writes Sefer HaChinuch, the Midrash Tanchuma quotes Rabi Yose’ son of Rabi Chanina, who commented that G-d told Moshe, ‘To you I will reveal the intent of this Mitzvah but to no one else.’
Sefer HaChinuch then writes that it is not the paradox inherent in the Red Cow that confuses him and causes despair from further insight into this Mitzvah. What is the paradox of the cow?
In the process of preparing the ashes of the cow numerous Kohanim were involved. One would take responsibility for the burning of the cow. He would then be ritually impure, and must immerse both his clothing and his body in a Mikvah before returning to the camp. He would remain impure until nightfall. Another Kohen would stir the cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread into the burning cow, and he would require the same purification as his colleague. A third Kohen would gather the ash and place it in a designated area outside of the camp. He too would require purification. The paradox is that all those involved in its manufacture would be contaminated by the ashes, while the ashes themselves served to purify others who were contaminated by other spiritual impurities. How is it that the ash contaminates the pure and purifies the contaminated?
Sefer HaChinuch writes that there is no paradox here, or at least there is precedence in nature and science for such contradiction. Many herbs have medical qualities which are healing for the ill and harmful to the healthy. There are herbs that have qualities to warm those who are cold, but have a cooling effect on warm people. This is very forward thinking for a commentator of the 13th century. These ideas are vindicated over and over again in our advanced medical technology. Vitamins used to restore chemical balance in a patient suffering from deficiency, can push another out of balance if used inappropriately. The basis of antibiotics is to fight a disease by injecting more of that same disease into a body. Now that’s a real paradox, but we understand how it works. An animal cornered by an enemy fights much more fiercely. Our body is roused to fight a disease more fiercely if it receives signals of additional pathogens. We don’t understand the mechanics of a spiritual contamination, but we need not be bothered that the agent of healing is at the same time capable of contaminating the pure.
We live with many contradictions. To be human is to have contradictions. Our convictions and spoken beliefs often differ from our actions and even our lifestyles. We are quick to dismiss the reasoning of a fellow human being because of a flaw in their logic, certainly if it is contradictory. If there is something contradictory in the Torah we feel justified in complaining about its irrationality.
Maybe the Chinuch did us all a disservice by eliminating the paradox. Could it be that the very lesson of the Torah here (or one of the lessons) is to teach us that we need to learn to accept contradiction? We refuse to see it in ourselves, even (and especially) when the inconsistency of our ways is pointed out to us by another, but we call it hypocrisy when inconsistency is manifest in a fellow human.
Is the Torah attempting to face us with a blatant contradiction here to tell us something?
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