Rashi, in his famous comments to the opening of Parashat Chukat, notes that the Torah introduces the law of para aduma – the red heifer, whose ashes were used for purification – with the phrase, “Zot chukat ha-Torah” – “This is the statute of the Torah.” The term “chok,” as the Gemara (Yoma 67b) teaches, refers to commands whose underlying reasons elude our comprehension, and must be observed as an immutable decree of God despite our inability to understand their value. The term is used in reference to para aduma, Rashi writes, because “Satan and the nations of the world pressure Israel, saying, ‘What is this command?’” (In some versions of Rashi’s commentary, this passage continues, “What reason does it have?”) The Torah emphasizes that the command of para aduma is a “chok,” a law whose reason eludes our understanding, and must be observed despite the pressure exerted by our natural inner resistance (“Satan”) and by our religious adversaries.
Many later writers raised the question of how to reconcile this remark with Rashi’s comments later, in concluding the section of the para aduma (19:22), bringing a comprehensive symbolic approach to the para aduma ritual in the name of Rabbi Moshe Ha-darshan. This approach explains that this mitzva serves to atone for the sin of the golden calf. The use of a cow – the mother of a calf – for a mitzva is a symbol of a mother cleaning the mess left by her infant. Rabbi Moshe Ha-darshan proceeded to explain several details of the para aduma ritual as symbolic of various aspects of the sin of the golden calf. For example, the requirement that the para aduma must have never been harnessed to a yoke of any kind represents Benei Yisrael’s removal of their yoke of submission to God at the time of the golden calf. The question thus arises, if Rashi himself brings a thorough explanation of the symbolic meaning of the para aduma, then why does he consider it a “chok,” a law whose reasoning eludes us and to which we therefore might have some trouble committing ourselves?
One answer that has been suggested is that para aduma is an inscrutable “chok” precisely in the sense that it provides atonement for the golden calf. Both our rational instincts and our adversaries tell us that we are forever victims of our past mistakes, that a sin as grave as the golden calf – when we betrayed God just weeks after He revealed Himself at Sinai – leaves an indelible stain. More generally, we often find it difficult to move on after making a serious mistake, or after a grave failure. We are convinced that our “mess” can never be “cleaned,” that the effects of our mistake are destined to remain with us forever. We think this way because it makes sense. After all, the past cannot be undone, and everything we experience has some effect upon us, discernible or otherwise. However, the “chukat ha-Torah” establishes that all “messes” can be “cleaned,” that our grave mistakes can be corrected, that we can change course and thereby erase the stains on our record. The para aduma, appropriately, is used for purification – to restore the purity of a person or article that had become defiled through contact with a human corpse. The message of this mitzva is precisely the notion of “purification,” that we can recover from “impurity” and undergo significant change. We don’t have to understand how or why this works; we need simply to trust in this “chukat ha-Torah,” in the power of positive change, in our capacity to free ourselves from our past mistakes and move forward with confidence and conviction.