The Parasha opens with the words, "זאת חוקת התורה" (This is a "Chok" of the Torah [Numbers 19:2]). By these words, our Sages understood that the Law of the Red Heifer was the quintessential chok, i.e., a law that defies human rationale. We fulfill this mitzvah, even though we don't understand it, because we love Gcd, we trust the Source, and by so doing, we implicitly acknowledge that there are limits to human understanding.
The conundrum of the Red Heifer revolves around the following paradox: the ashes of the Red Heifer render one who is "impure" (from contact with a dead body) pure, simultaneously rendering one who is "pure" impure.* (המטהר את הטמא והמטמא את הטהור) The Midrash teaches that this paradox was so difficult to understand that it's rationale eluded even the great King Solomon, widely regarded as the deepest thinker of Jewish history.
At least that's what we teach our Fifth Graders.
But is the Law of the Red Heifer really so difficult to understand?
To borrow a phrase from H.L. Menken, let us attempt to "unscrew the inscrutable." What follows are no less than three independent approaches to understanding the rationale behind the Laws of the Red Heifer.
I. The first is the approach of the Kli Yakar. He writes that in order to understand the Red Heifer, we have to break down the ritual into it's constituent parts.
The admixture that was sprinkled on the impure person was "Living Water" such as we have in a mikveh, and the ashes of the Red Heifer. The Red Heifer, in turn, is a specialized form of "Chatat," the sin offering brought in the Holy Temple.
In truth, he writes, it's the Living Water that is affecting the purification; the ashes, while necessary, serve a more symbolic function.
The symbolism of the ashes of the Red Heifer is as follows: First, sin equals death. When a person sins, they distance themselves from the Life-Source, and any living thing that is disconnected from the Life-Source will eventually wither and die.
Second, if an individual wishes to purge sin from their lives, they must destroy it root and branch. Treating the symptoms of sin without dealing with underlying root cause ensures that the sin will resurface in the future.
The archetypal sin in the Jewish consciousness is the sin of the Golden Calf. Thus, if one wishes to rectify this sin at it's root, one must look to the source of the calf...which is the heifer that bore it.
And it can't just be any heifer, it must be completely red. This recalls the verse in Isaiah 1:18: "Though your sins are like scarlet, they will become white as snow; though they will be red as crimson, they become as white as wool." After it is completely consumed by the fire, the Red Heifer is reduced to white cinders, and it is these cinders that are mixed with the Living Waters.
So during the week of mourning over our dead, the ashes of the Red Heifer remind us of the opportunity at hand to reflect on our own lives; to banish sin; and emulate the piety, erudition and devotion of the deceased.
II. The second approach to understanding the Law of the Red Heifer is from Rabbi Soloveitchik, zt"l, which I refer to as the "Lifeguard Theorem." Simply put: any attempt to save a drowning man probably means getting a little wet yourself. If someone is lying face down in the mud, in order to extract him, you're likely to get some mud on your shoes.
So, too, with the ashes of the Red Heifer. The process of restoring one who is profoundly impure to a state of purity necessarily involves some minor impurity on the part of the Soref and the Osef, the ones who actually prepared the ashes for sprinkling.
III. The third approach is retro-tech. The ashes of the red heifer functioned as an ancient semiconductor. What is a semiconductor? It is a material that can have regions of positive charge and regions of negative charge, simultaneously blocking the flow of electricity or allowing it. Like a semiconductor, the ashes of the red Heifer could simultaneously make the impure pure and the pure impure.
This idea takes on added weight when one considers the construction of the Ark of the Covenant. We read in Exodus 25:10 that the Ark of the Covenant was constructed from acacia wood, lined on the inside and the outside with pure gold. So we have two excellent conductors (the gold) separated by an insulator (the wood) - in other words, the Ark, upon which the Divine presence hovered, functioned as some sort of capacitor or battery or energy transmission device. If we can conceive of the A-lmighty as the Life/Energy Source of the universe, then somehow that Divine energy flowed through the Ark and into the world.
We have just briefly outlined three rationales for the mitzvah of the Red Heifer. The question remains: if we, who are nominally as smart as fifth graders, could articulate a rationale for the Red Heifer, why couldn't Solomon?
In the end, the Law of the Red Heifer is the quintessential chok. Solomon wasn't confounded by the mechanisms of the pure/impure paradox, which (forgive me for saying this) is almost a trivial matter, but by something much deeper.
It is curious that the Torah calls the water of purification מי חטאת or "water of the sin offering" and refers to the purification process with the language of chet/sin: הוא יתחטא בו (Numbers 19:12).
Water is life, and water itself is a paradox. We can't go more than a few days without it, and yet water can sometimes destroy.
Later in our parashah, at the Mei Merivah, the very water that saves the Jews heralds the deaths of Aharon and Moses.
In Jewish Law, we know that water affects purification, but it can also be a medium for conveying impurity.
Water is life, and life is water. The paradoxes of water are the paradoxes of life. And the paradox of the red heifer water suggested to Solomon epic questions of existence, of life and death itself.
Why do we exist? Given that the A-lmighty deigned to create a universe, why did he plant us on this tiny rock, in a miniscule solar system, in a tiny galaxy, in a remote corner of His created universe?
And now that we exist, to what purpose?
Why is it that when we give with no expectation of return, it is only then that we truly receive?
Why do the righteous suffer while the wicked enjoy lives of ease?
If we have unfettered free will, the future is unwritten. Yet we know that Gcd knows the future. If that is so, the future is in some sense pre-ordained, which means we don't have unfettered free will. But we know we have unfettered free will...
How is it that true freedom comes only through subservience to Gcd?
And perhaps the greatest paradox of all: why is it only through death that we achieve eternal life (חיי עולם הבא)?
It took a Solomonic mind to see all these questions encapsulated in and symbolized by the ashes of the Red Heifer; vexing questions which do not lend themselves to easy answers.
As the Talmud suggests in Tractate Shabbat 83b (at the bottom, beginning with Amar Rabbi Yonatan) perhaps the question itself is the answer. Contained within the Torah are the answers to these questions, and even though we haven't yet successfully decoded the answers, they're in there. So must stay in the study hall and keep asking the hard questions. We must continue to learn Torah, attempting to unlock its secrets, until our dying day.
Thus we come full circle to our opening phrase: "זאת חוקת התורה" This is the "chok," the conundrum - and the Torah is the solution.
* I use the terms "pure" and "impure" for the Hebrew ""tahor" and tamei" reservedly and only in the interest of clarity. These terms are not translatable and the imperfect English translation conveys connotations that do not exist in the Hebrew. Subject for another time.