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Any document that comes to us from Above, such as the Torah, must include some communication that isn’t understood in human terms. Spirituality that comes from Above carries a message that surpasses our own intellect; otherwise, it wouldn’t be from beyond us. However, the Creator also wants us to use our minds and our hearts to connect with Him. Therefore, He gave us three levels of mitzvoth, or commandments in the Torah. There are those, such as not to steal, not to murder, and not to kidnap, that are understood in human terms. Even without the instructions of the Torah, we would likely come to the conclusion that these are important rules of behavior, because without them, civilization just won’t exist.

But, there is another level of mitzvoth that we may not have thought of on our own, but with the prompting of the Torah, we come to realize that they make sense. Such, for example, are the commandments in time, such as the Sabbath and the festivals. It’s not likely that we would decide on our own to take off every seventh day and dedicate it to rest and spirituality, but once it has been declared as a day of rest by the Torah, it makes sense intellectually as well.

And finally, there are those commandments that make no sense whatsoever. They just don’t fit in at all in our limited intellects. We can’t fathom them, because their main message is from beyond, from a realm that doesn’t engage the intellect, but that very likely engages us on far deeper levels. Chief among such mitzvoth is the one discussed in our weekly portion, Chukat. Here is discussed the commandment of the red heifer, or “parah aduma” in Hebrew. Its purpose is to remove the impurity associated with death. Anyone who was in the same room with a Jewish corpse or who in some other way came into contact with the death of a fellow Jew is contaminated with this impurity. The only way to remove it is by taking a red heifer that never carried any yoke or did any work, and ritually sacrificing it. The ashes that are left after burning the red heifer, when dissolved in water and sprinkled on the impure human being, have the effect of purifying him from this most difficult of spiritual impurities and allowing him to perform such services as going up to the Temple Mount.

There are a couple of unique features of this mitzvah that are totally confounding, which is why even King Solomon, the wisest of all men, said that this mitzvah is beyond him. Only to Moses was revealed the intellectual understanding of the red heifer, and therefore the entire mitzvah is associated with him. The two confounding details are as follows:

1) The purifying process, unlike every other sacrifice, takes place outside of the Temple compound. Unlike all other sacrifices, the ritual slaughter of the red heifer and its sprinkling on the contaminated person takes place outside of the bounds of the holy Temple.

2) The one who does the sprinkling, purifying the impure, himself becomes impure. That is, the red heifer “purifies the impure and contaminates the pure.”

When Moses was confronted with the challenge of spiritual contamination associated with death, the Midrash tells us that his faced wrinkled up. That is, he was puzzled to the point of wonderment, “how is it possible to remove this contamination?” He didn’t react similarly to other forms of spiritual contamination, because they were only details in the overall subject of purity and impurity. However, when it came to the spiritual contamination associated with death, he was confounded. Death is the opposite of cleaving and clinging to G-d. One who for one reason or another is prevented from growing and developing a connection with G-d is said to be “dead,” or contaminated with the impurity that is associated with death. So, Moses’s natural question was, “how can one be purified” from this contamination, the source and origin of all impurity. Once “dead,” how does one “come alive” spiritually and return to the One above? When G-d revealed to him the secret of the red heifer, which is the ultimate connection with the One above, Moshe understood. The ashes of the red heifer connect with the essence of G-d, bringing down forgiveness from outside of the intellectual system of the Torah, thus enabling the person to become purified even from contact with death. The red heifer is not associated with the intellect of the Torah, but with the very soul of the Torah, with G-d himself. Therefore, it has the ability to purify the contamination that prevents cleaving with the One above. And that’s why the mitzvah takes place outside of the Temple. It is meant to deal with people and situations that are so distant from holiness that they can’t be brought into the Temple compound. Therefore, the mitzvah must take place “outside” of the realm of holiness, where it can reach those who have become disconnected and disassociated from the Torah. They are spiritually “dead,” and need resuscitation and purification.
Presently, we don’t have the Temple, nor do we have the ashes of the red heifer. So, how do we enact the mitzvah of removing and purifying the contamination associated with death? For that, we need to understand Moshe better. One of his traits was unstinting self-sacrifice for other Jews. This was to such a great extent that he even requested from G-d to remove him from the Torah unless G-d included the “mixed multitude” that exited Egypt together with the rest of the Jewish people, and caused the sin of the golden calf. As a result of his great self-sacrifice, he was rewarded with understanding the secret of the red heifer. Since Moses was willing to go to such great lengths to save the Jews, G-d revealed to him the secret of the red heifer. And that is, in order to purify another Jew, you must be willing yourself to become sullied. You must be willing to come down from your own spiritual level, in order to get involved with another Jew who needs your spiritual expertise. Another Jew who does not know of G-d and the Torah is spiritually contaminated, sullied by disconnection from G-d which is the equivalent of spiritual death. He needs the red heifer, the connection with G-d that comes from learning Torah and doing mitzvoth. It’s the responsibility of the one who already has the knowledge to share his learning and his connection with G-d, even if in so doing he becomes sullied. His level will be temporarily lowered, but G-d will certainly repay him by ultimately raising him to a higher level. But to perform the mitzvah properly, the Jew must realize that he has to come down from his level, and even so be willing to share his knowledge with someone else who is disconnected. That’s the trick of the red heifer; that “purifies the impure, and contaminates the pure.”

That also allows us to explain another curious detail of the red heifer. After it was burned, the ashes were divided into three containers. One was used for purifying the contaminated, as discussed above. A second was used for purifying the priests who prepared the red heifer by sacrificing and burning it. And the third was simply “as a reminder,” part of which was mixed into the preparation of every succeeding red heifer for every generation. (One red heifer was necessary during the first temple, eight during the second temple, and a tenth will be prepared by the meshiach when he arrives). The question is, why? What is the point of mixing a portion of the original red heifer into every succeeding one? But, it is in order to remind us that Moses is part of every purification process. Every time we reach out to affect another Jew and draw him or her into the “fold,” we are motivated and influenced by Moses’s original self-sacrifice for every other Jew. He was willing to endanger his own spiritual position in order to uplift another Jew, and for that he is remembered in every generation with the ashes of the original red heifer that he prepared.

Thus, there are several lessons to be learned from the mitzvah of the red heifer.
1) When we see a Jew who is so far away from Judaism that he seems incapable

of fulfilling any mitzvoth or of any spiritual development – that is,
he’s “dead” (spiritually) - we have to remember Moshe. With the red

heifer, he gave us the power to elevate and purify those who became

contaminated by contact with the dead, those who are on the surface far

away from anything holy.

2) Even after reminding ourselves of this, we may think, “okay, but why does

it have to be me? Someone else can leave their state of spirituality and

lower themselves to deal with this “far-away” Jew. Then, we have to

further remind ourselves that they way to purify the contamination of

association with death is by going “outside” of the Temple and lowering

ourselves to deal with another Jew. It may seem like we lose something in

the process, but in the end we ourselves will be elevated to a higher

spiritual level.

3) After having successfully taught and influenced another Jew, we may

conclude that it was our own talent and abilities that allowed us to

succeed. For that, we need to be reminded by the little bit of Moshe that

is in the ashes of every red heifer; he was the most humble of all men on

the face of the earth, and it is his presence and influence that allow us

to succeed in our efforts with other Jews.

4) We may forget that we also have to deal with ourselves. We can’t get so

involved with others that we neglect our own spiritual welfare and
development. That as well is something to be learned from the ashes that

were carried over throughout the generations. They are to remind us not

to abandon our own spiritual core, that needs renewal from time to time.

Only by refreshing the connection with our spiritual origins will we be
able to continue giving to others.

Adopted from Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, ztz’l, vol. 4, pp. 1056-1061 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the Old City of Jerusalem