Chukat - Overcoming the Irrational

This week at lunch we were discussing the gourmet dairy treats that would be served in the office in the afternoon, that the secretary was ordering. So most of us ordered paarve food for lunch.

One of the non-observant guys was confused, so my colleague explained that after meat some wait as long as six hours before having dairy food.

"Why? For health reasons or something?" the guy asked.
"No," my colleague explained, "it just says in the Torah the basic kosher laws."
"But doesn't the Torah stipulate the benefit? Like this will keep you healthy, or even by maintaining these strictures you will be ensured wealth?"
"No, this is simply the injunctions made by the Torah. We are serving the will of Hashem."
"That's completely irrational. You are just doing something that was proscribed, without any understanding of why, or what the purpose or benefit is?" the non-observant guy asked.

"If you think that is irrational, let me tell you about this week's parshah," I said.

It starts off with "This is the statute of the Torah" - declaring the mitzvah of the red heifer, an enigmatic law that defies logic and has no explanation associated with it, yet requiring our pure compliance.

We then have this instruction for preparing the mixture formed from the red heifer.
The kohen shall take a piece of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson wool, and cast them into the burning of the cow.
. וְלָקַח הַכֹּהֵן עֵץ אֶרֶז וְאֵזוֹב וּשְׁנִי תוֹלָעַת וְהִשְׁלִיךְ אֶל תּוֹךְ שְׂרֵפַת הַפָּרָה
Bamidbar 19:6 
The Elements of a Perfect Mixture
The key mixture produced through the ashes of the red heifer consists of the piece of cedar wood - a tall, mighty tree - and hyssop, a lowly, fragrant bush.The Slonimer Rebbe in Netivot Shalom brings the question of why is a piece of cedar wood part of this mixture? After all a cedar is strong, tall tree echoing a sense of pride. Why would a mixture meant to be holy and used for purifying the most intense form of impurity (impurity from contact with the dead) have as it's leading ingredient something that seems so contrary to this purpose? Furthermore, if it to be included then why is it made the primary element in this mixture, preceding all the others?

The Slonimer Rebbe answers that we can gain a better understanding of this by looking a little earlier at the opening of the parshah.

Balancing Characteristics
The parshah starts off with Hashem addressing Moshe and Aharon.
The L-rd spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying: This is the statute of the Torah
וַיְדַבֵּר ה אֶל משֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר 
Bamidbar 19:1-2 
Moshe and Aharon each represent important character traits. Moshe was the ultimate paragon of humility. The verse notes that "Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth." (Bamidbar 12:3).

Aharon on the other hand is characterized by his role in leading the priesthood, exemplified as the Kohen Gadol. Inherent to the Kohen Gadol is prestige, embodied by the pageantry and grandeur of the clothing and accompanying articles that adorn the Kohen Gadol. The Kohen Gadol fully outfitted in this regal dress is an impressive sight.

Yet these traits can also have a downside.

Humility and humbleness can be an opportunity that can be exploited by the Yetzer Harah (one's evil inclination). The Yetzer Harah can take a lowly state and pull it down lowly, undermining confidence, self worth and ultimately one's very sense of worthiness for a relationship with Hashem.

Likewise, the impressive appearance of the Kohen Gadol provides a dangerous opportunity for the Yetzer Harah. Under the guise of appearing regal and important one can consider their journey complete, having mastered spiritual challenges and declaring to yourself that you have already achieved the ultimate relationship with Hashem.

Says the Slonimer Rebbe, we need both of these critical characteristics - humility and regal importance - bound together to ultimately gain the best relationship with Hashem.

The elements of the red heifer mixture encapsulate these traits. The mighty cedar reflects the prestige captured by Aharon, while the lowly hyssop bush echoes the humbleness and humility of Moshe. Only when these opposing traits are brought together does the red heifer mixture gain full potency and can turn the impure into the pure.

The Importance of Prestige
Nevertheless if they must be brought together, why should the mighty cedar take precedent over the lowly hyssop. Shouldn't humility take center stage?

Says the Slonimer Rebbe, the cedar must be first to remind us that we play a very important role in this world, striving to bring the word of Hashem into the world. We are likened to the children of The King. We must incorporate that role into our being, yet not let it overwhelm us. Easily such a notion could go to one's head, and to balance this the next element in this mixture is simple hyssop bush. This serves remind us of our maintaining a humble state, despite our elevated role and purpose in the world.

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