The beauty and elegance of Judaism lie in its masterful fusion of the rational and the irrational, creating a blended religious experience that both excites the intellect and inspires the soul. This duality is not a contradiction, but a sweet melody composed of reason and enriched by faith. Through our submission to divine mysteries and our commitment to irrational mitzvot as acts of devotion, we transcend the limitations of human understanding, allowing faith to soar beyond the confines of logic and into the boundless realm of the infinite.

The halachos of the parah adumah comprise the quintessential illogical ritual. There is absolutely no logic capable of explaining why the ashes of an undrafted-for-labor red cow combined with mayim chaim, or natural spring water, applied twice in the course of a seven-day regimen alleviates halachic tumah, allowing a person to return to the precincts of the Mikdash. This bizarre ritual challenges every strand of human reasoning. This mysterious ceremony is the ultimate riddle or, as the Torah calls it, a chok.

The Hebrew word chok refers to an enigma, but it also alludes to a law which is foundational. The two connotations of the term chok are complementary. Embracing the mystery of the illogical is a cornerstone of faith. This is precisely why, according to the Gemara, the laws of parah adumah were first delivered in the weeks before Har Sinai. By delivering an irrational commandment which we could not hope to understand, Hashem trained us that embracing divine mystery is fundamental to stout faith.

Yet, the laws of the parah adumah, though originally delivered prior to Sinai, are only explicitly mentioned once in a very odd context. As a form of a korban and a procedure which alleviates tumah, the laws of parah adumah should have been written in the book of Vayikra alongside other korbanos and together with other laws of the Mikdash. Yet these distinctive halachos are listed in the opening section of Chukat!

Despair in the Desert

The intersection between parshat Korach and Chukat symbolizes the forty-year passage through the desert. The Korach insurrection occurred during the second year of our Exodus, while the death of Miriam and Aharon, and the wars in Transjordan occurred 38 years later. During the intervening years, the older desert generation lived in a state of continuous pessimism and hopelessness. They were condemned to die a quiet desert death and to be buried in anonymous sand dunes. They had no easy answers to their sorry predicament of death, despair, and darkness. As much as they strained their imaginations, they could not devise a solution to their death sentence. They had absolutely no recourse to rejoin Jewish history. Everything was lost.

Amidst this national despair, the laws of parah adumah are introduced, stressing that, when all seems lost and when humans come up empty, solutions must come from a higher realm and from a divine logic which lies beyond human comprehension. The illogical laws of parah adumah taught the dying desert generation to look elsewhere for resolutions of intractable situations.

It is not incidental that the ultimate halachic mystery of parah adumah addresses death and the tumah caused by contact with dead people. Death is the ultimate mystery. As we ponder the mystery of death, our questions echo endlessly, unanswered and elusive. Contemplating the inevitability of death compels us to recognize a Higher Being. As we confront the mystery of our existence and the limits of our mortality, we look for meaning and solutions beyond our earthly bounds. The parah adumah, based on incomprehensible divine logic, is the only legal solution to death. And, understandably, it is illogical, just as death is incomprehensible.

The juxtaposition of the laws of the parah adumah with the despair of the desert showcases that solutions to difficult predicaments sometimes lie beyond human comprehension. Facing the overwhelming and the unknowable humbles us and forces us to look elsewhere. As Tolstoy remarked, “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.”

Our National Impasse

Our people currently face a similar predicament of despair and despondency. After being viciously attacked and then subsequently blamed by the world for being viciously attacked, we have struggled mightily and heroically to defend our land and to rebuild our spirit. As successful as we have been and as valiantly as we have fought, certain frustrating realities are becoming evident.

We are enduring innumerable layers of suffering: the hostages continue to undergo unspeakable torture in tunnels as their lives are endangered as each day passes. The woe and anguish of families who faced crushing losses, both on October 7th and during the continued fighting. Tens of thousands of people who still can’t return to their homes. An uncertain and dangerous situation in the North which could spiral at any moment. A powerful axis of murderers sworn to the destruction of our state. And, of course, no shortage of Jew-haters who cloak their antisemitism under the guise of anti-Zionism.

It is difficult to find a way out and we find ourselves searching for the least problematic solution. We must pick our poison. The lack of a clear and decisive solution is causing despair. We like to believe that life offers neat solutions, but often it doesn’t. It doesn’t seem that human logic can help us navigate through this stretch of Jewish history.

Where logic ends, faith begins. Where human capability falls short, divine possibility lurks. Optimism lies at the heart of faith. We suffered a horrific day followed by an exasperating nine months. The desert generation faced 38 years of death and hopelessness. Where logic ends faith begins.

Solutions Create Problems

What makes the parah adumah so confusing is not only that it is illogical, but also that it is paradoxical. It relieves tumah impurity from one person while conferring it upon a different one. The ash and water mixture purifies the recipient but confers tumah to those who apply it. The impure are purified while the pure become impure. Solutions often breed new problems and complications. One step forward, one step back.

Sadly, we are facing this paradox as well. Attempts to resolve one of our problems inevitably aggravates a different issue. If we pursue the war to a decisive victory, we endanger the lives of the hostages. Stopping short of routing Hamas and exchanging terrorists for hostages only emboldens our enemies. Continued war in the South exacerbates the violence in the North. One step forward, one step back.

Time and Repetition

The parah adumah procedure involves two different applications of the water and ash mixture separated by four days. This unusual repetition of a ritual ceremony underscores that fact that many of life’s complex situations cannot be solved in the immediate sense, through one action and in one decisive stroke. Stubborn problems often require multiple responses and sometimes time must pass for a complete solution to emerge.

Part of our national despair stems from the false notion that we can achieve a decisive victory in the immediate sense. This complicated predicament will take time to fully resolve. Whatever political solution we reach and whatever policy we choose will only be a partial one. It is unlikely that our numerous enemies will quickly disappear into thin air. Our new reality will be fraught with complications, new burdens, and continued struggles.

We will succeed. It will take time. It will require many stages. We pray to Hashem to intervene and resolve it with divine-like quickness. Human solutions cannot fully solve our situation.

When logic falters, faith soars.


Rabbi Moshe Taragin is a rabbi at Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush, a hesder yeshiva, with smicha from Yeshiva University and a master’s in English literature from the City University of New York. He is the author of “Dark Clouds Above, Faith Below” (Kodesh Press), which provides religious responses to Oct. 7.



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