"This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord has commanded saying" Numbers 39:2
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The title of this week's sidrah indicates that of the many mitzvot described as "statutes", that of the law of the red heifer is the paradigm for them all.
If the definition of a statute is a law for which there is no known reason, then the procedure of purification with the ashes of the red heifer appears to be truly incomprehensible. The person over whom they were sprinkled was rendered pure, while all those involved in the purification procedure were themselves rendered impure.
No wonder King Solomon remarked, "I said, I will be wise; but it was far from me" (Ecclesiastes 8:23). No wonder our sages remarked that this mitzvah above all others attracted the scorn of the non-Jewish nations.
In a strange way, however, the very inscrutability of this law provides the buttress to faith that it seems to undermine. Life itself mirrors the dichotomy represented by the heifer. The righteous suffer, the wicked prosper, God's Chosen People are persecuted as no others. Is this not the "statute" of the rhythm of life? The red heifer reminds us that if its procedures are unfathomable, so too are many of the patterns of life itself.
When in 1244, 24 wagon-loads of Jewish manuscripts were publicly burnt on the streets of Paris, the authorities at the time proclaimed that day as an annual fast for the community. That day was erev Shabbat Chukkat, Tammuz 9. Significantly, however, the day that they proclaimed for the fast was erev Shabbat Chukkat, no matter what date of the calendar it should fall.
In so doing, perhaps they were only too aware that the Jew, in attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible, requires the law of the red heifer to remind him that life is just like that.