The Decree


And G-d spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: This is the decree (chok) of the Torah …. If a person should die in a tent, all that enter the tent and all that is in the tent shall be tamei (ritually impure) for seven days…. And for the contaminated person they shall take from the ashes [of the Red Heifer]…

Numbers 19:1-2, 14-17

The law of the “Red Heifer,” which instructs how to purify a person from the ritual impurity caused by contact with a dead body, is often cited as the ultimately supra-rational divine decree. King Solomon, the “wisest of men,”[1] said of this mitzvah:

“All [of the Torah’s commandments] I have comprehended. But the chapter of the Red Heifer, though I have examined it, questioned it and searched it out-I thought to be wise to it, but it is distant from me.”[2]

There are, indeed, many aspects to the law of the Red Heifer which defy rationalization. In the first place, the very phenomenon of “ritual purity” is a mystical, supra-rational concept. The purification process, which is achieved by sprinkling the ashes of a Red Heifer upon the contaminated person, follows no logic we can see. And then there are the internal inconsistencies in the law, such as the fact that while the sprinkling of the ashes purifies the contaminated person, it renders impure the one who did the sprinkling.

But there are other laws in the Torah which are no less elusive to human reason. In fact, there exists an entire category of mitzvot, called chukim (“decrees”), whose defining criteria is that they cannot be comprehended by the mortal mind. What is it about the law of the Red Heifer that makes it the archetypal “decree,” the mitzvah of which G-d says: “This is the chok of the Torah”?

Moses Turned Pale

The Midrash tells us that Moses was the only human being who was granted an understanding of the law of the Red Heifer. “To you,” G-d said to Moses, “I shall reveal the meaning of the Heifer; to everyone else it is a chok.”[3] Yet Moses, too, experienced great difficulty in accepting this law, as we see from the following Midrashic account:

In everything that G-d taught Moses, He would tell him both the manner of contamination and the manner of purification. When G-d came to the laws concerning one who comes in contact with a dead body, Moses said to Him: “Master of the universe! If one is thus contaminated, how may he be purified?!” G-d did not answer him. At that moment, the face of Moses turned pale.

When G-d came to the section of the “Red Heifer,” He said to Moses: “This is its manner of purification.” Said Moses to G-d: “Master of the universe! This is a purification?” Said G-d: “Moses, it is a chok, a decree that I have decreed, and no creature can fully comprehend My decrees.”[4]

The Mystery of Death

The departure of the soul from the body is incomprehensible to us. Not rationally – rationally, death makes perfect sense. We understand the fragility of life, the dissolutive nature of everything physical. But in our heart of hearts, we refuse to accept it. Regardless of all “evidence” to the contrary, we persist in seeing life as eternal; regardless of what the mind explains, we reject the very concept of death.

Even more difficult to accept is that there can be some process, some formula, that can possibly deal with, let alone heal, the terrible void of life departed. What possible antidote can there be to the anguish, the emptiness, the utter futility that death brings to the human heart?

This was why Moses turned pale upon hearing about the ritual laws of death. It was not for the lack of rational understanding of how the spiritual stain of death can be cleansed; indeed, Moses was the one human being to whom “the meaning of the Heifer” was revealed. Still he cried: “Master of the universe! Is this a purification?” You have explained to me how the ashes of the Red Heifer “work.” My mind is satisfied, but this does little to still the turmoil of my heart. My heart cannot comprehend how the evil of death can possibly be mitigated.

And G-d replied: “Moses, it is a chok, a decree that I have decreed.” Certain things are so overwhelming to My creations that they can only be overcome by submitting to an absolute command from an absolute authority. I have therefore commanded laws to instruct you what to do when your lives are touched by death. These are supra-rational, even irrational laws, for only such laws can facilitate your recovery. It is only by force of an utterly incomprehensible divine decree that you can recover from death.

The Laws of Mourning

Today, we do not have the ashes of the Red Heifer. But we do have laws and rituals to deal with death. Torah law instructs us to mourn the death of a loved one – and then regulates our mourning. The very concept of “laws of mourning” is incomprehensible. Can a person be instructed to mourn? Can he, conversely, be instructed to reduce or cease his mourning?

Yet this is precisely what the Torah does. There are specific laws that govern the intensity of the mourning in the hours from the death to the burial (a period called onanut), specific laws for the first three days following the burial, for the first seven days (shivah), for the first thirty days (sheloshim), and for the first year following a death. At each of these junctures, it is demanded of us to cross over into a new phase of mourning – a phase in which the intensity of our anguish and sense of loss is further mitigated and sublimated.

We resist these milestones with every fiber of our being. The mind understands the difference between the shivah and the sheloshim and between the sheloshim and the first year, but the heart does not accept it. One need not be disheartened by this internal resistance: the Torah tells us that Moses himself could not prevail upon his heart to accept what his mind had been given to understand. Even after G-d explained to Moses how the “Red Heifer” sublimates an encounter with death, it remained a chok – distant from the greatest of minds and utterly incomprehensible to every heart. Yet G-d commands us to make these transitions, and empowers us to fulfill His command.

It is the power of the divine decree that enables us to go on – both in our own lives, and in our work on behalf of others (for surely those who are dependent upon us cannot be made to wait until our minds and hearts have fully integrated what we know is expected of us). And the power of the divine decree is such that we can ultimately prevail upon ourselves to sublimate the negativities of death.

May we soon merit the day that such sublimation will no longer be necessary-the day when the Almighty will “remove the spirit of impurity from the earth”[5] so that “death shall cease forever and G-d shall erase the tear from every face”[6] and “those who dwell in the dust shall waken and rejoice.”[7]

Based on two addresses delivered by the Rebbe on Adar 21, 5748 (March 10, 1988), upon the conclusion of the sheloshim of his wife, Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka Schneerson, of blessed memory.

Adapted from the teachings of the Rebbe by Yanki Tauber


[1] I Kings 5:11.

[2] Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 19:3, after Ecclesiastes 7:23.

[3] Ibid. 19:4.

[4] Midrash Rabbah, Kohelet 8:5.

[5] Zechariah 13:2.

[6] Isaiah 25:8.

[7] Ibid. 26:19.


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