The Lesson of the Red Heifer
Yael Eckstein | July 4, 2022
This is a requirement of the law that the LORD has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke. —Numbers 19:2
Each week in synagogue, Jews read through the Torah from Genesis to Deuteronomy. The Torah portion for this week is Chukat, which means “requirement,” from Numbers 19:1–22:1.
One of my favorite verses in the entire Bible is in the Book of Isaiah: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9).
I love it because it’s a simple and straightforward reminder that as mere human beings, we can never fully comprehend God’s thoughts and ways. There are times when life is puzzling or difficult.
I often wonder why God is doing what He’s doing. Then I think about this verse, and rather than frustrating me because I’ll never fully understand God, it actually calms me down. It makes me feel safe. It reminds me that no matter how confusing this world may sometimes be, God is in control, and He knows exactly what He’s doing.
This applies to what God does and also to what He says. There are some commandments in the Torah that just don’t make sense. But maybe that’s the point. Those seemingly irrational laws remind us that obedience to God’s Word doesn’t mean we always understand.
The Lesson of the Red Heifer
This week’s Torah portion includes the one law that according to Jewish tradition is most difficult for humans to comprehend. We read, “This is a requirement of the law that the LORD has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke.”
This red heifer would be slaughtered and completely burnt. Its ashes would then be mixed with water. Once this was done, the water and ashes had the power to purify someone who became impure due to contact with a corpse. But what does this mean? The law makes no logical sense.
The Jewish sages taught that it is precisely because this law is impossible to understand that makes it so important. The word for “requirement” in this verse is chok. Very few commandments are called chok. According to Jewish tradition, a chok is a law that is impossible for humans to understand. The Hebrew for “requirement of the law” is chukat haTorah, literally, “the chok of the Torah.”
Based on this wording, in Jewish tradition, the lesson of the red heifer teaches us that in truth, the entire Torah is a chok, beyond our understanding. No matter what we understand, God’s true reasons for what He says and does are beyond our understanding.
It is for us to simply respond in obedience and trust.
Take some prayer time today to tell God that you trust Him even when you don’t understand His plan.