Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 6 July 2019 / 3 Tammuz 5779

Parshat Chukat

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Fettered and Free: Man’s Dual Nature

The commandment of the Red Heifer is introduced as the law of the Torah. As such it is the fundamental institution of the whole teaching of tumat met, the impurity imparted by a human corpse. The red heifer is also referred to as a chatat, which denotes a clearing away of sin, or cancellation of a sinful act and implicates morality. In this commandment, therefore, we find a clear link between the concept of tumah, impurity, and chatat, which implicates the sphere of morality.

Moral freedom is the first indispensable condition for sanctification of life which the Torah obligates us to strive for. This fundamental truth is threatened by the sight of a man succumbing to death, for the human corpse demonstrates the power of death for all to see, and the superficial observer perceives in the corpse the power of nature dominating everything, including man. If man must submit to the compelling forces of nature upon death, we might think that he also must submit to the compelling forces of nature during his lifetime. If so, he is under the same universal spell of the rest of nature, and his moral freedom does not exist. Wherever he “must” by compelling necessity, there is no room for choice.

The whole purpose of the laws of purity and impurity is to negate this idea. These laws confront the demoralizing illusion of physical non-freedom with the Divine guarantee that man does indeed have moral freedom. Throughout our lives, then, when energy of moral awareness is threatened by reminders of bondage to physical forces, the Law reminds us that purity is within our reach.

The red heifer was a public chatat, and in contrast to other chatat offerings the entire procedure was accomplished outside the Sanctuary. The individual chatat offerings atoned for private sins of particular individuals, and represented the individual’s vow to remain faithful. This chatat, by contrast, publicly proclaims that it is indeed possible to be free of sin! Man is indeed capable of controlling himself in the face of any physical temptation.

However, in announcing man’s moral freedom, it also recognizes that he is subject to physical forces — he remains free despite these forces. It does not teach man to close his eyes and ignore the physical reality of his nature. Rather, through the details of its laws, it shows him that he is mortal, and also eternal. He is fettered and also free. He has physical powersand also moral powers.

The heifer is a physical animal, mature (at least three years old), complete (temima) with full vitality, and unblemished. It may not have ever carried a burden. While it is meant to help man in his work, this heifer has never used its strength in the service of Mankind. It thus represents physical nature unmastered by man.

This physical nature uncontrolled by man is then handed over to the Kohen, clad in his white garments, whose task it is to show the way to purity. He then takes this raw physical force unrestrained by man and takes it outside of the camp, representing that unfettered animal nature has no place in the framework of Jewish national life. Outside the camp, the Kohen then slaughters the animal, demonstrating that the animal aspect must be subordinated through a sharp and decisive act of human free will. He then collects the blood of the animal — the nature now directed and controlled by moral choice — and directs it seven times towards the Sanctuary, until it reaches complete and full expression. Everything aside from this blood — everything physical and animalistic that has not been so reined in — will disintegrate into ash.

These ashes are preserved by the community to remind them of the fundamental teaching of man’s dual nature: Man is an amalgam of Heavenly and earthly, the G-dly and the animal, the eternal and the transitory. The ashes testify to this truth whenever death paints the illusion of man’s bondage to physical forces, and restores the awareness of moral freedom.

  • Sources: Commentary, Bamidbar 19:22

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