There is a major transition in Parshas Chukas that is easily missed and easily misunderstood. Beginning with Sefer Shemos and concluding in last week’s parsha, Korach, the Torah describes the events that occurred during the first two years of travel in the desert. Parshas Chukas picks up the storyline in the fortieth year of travel in the desert, immediately prior to the entrance into the Land of Israel. The trials and tribulations of the 38 intermediate years are not recorded. The sense of death and despair that no doubt permeated the consciousness of a nation ordained to die in the wilderness as a result of the sin of the spies is absent from the Torah. How does the Torah mark the transition from the old generation to the new, from hopelessness and dejection to impending resolve and triumph? The mitzvah of parah adumah, the red heifer.
The first commandment recorded in the Torah after 38 years of silence in the desert is the mitzvah of parah adumah, a procedure which purifies those who have become defiled through contact with a dead body. Although this mitzvah was given to the Jewish people many years prior (Chizkuni; see, however, Abarbanel), it is perhaps recorded here to provide a message. On the surface the connection between parah adumah and the 38 years is quite natural. The people born to the new generation were tameh, ritually impure, because they were all ostensibly involved in the burials of their parents and grandparents who died in the desert as a result of the decree. Therefore, when the storyline picks up with the new generation, the first objective is to purify the people with the ashes of the parah adumah that had been prepared by Moshe (Parah 3:5).
Perhaps on a deeper level, the mitzvah of parah adumah at this junction was not just to purify the body, but the spirit as well.
Tosafos in Bava Basra 121a notes that for 38 years Hashem did not communicate with Bnei Yisrael because they were largely depressed, and prophesy does not occur when one is in a state of sadness. Year after year all they had to look forward to was death. They would dig their own graves, go to sleep, and in the morning they would look around to see who did not wake up. When that annual death ritual came to a close in the fortieth year in the desert, Hashem sent a message of hope. Like the rainbow during the time of the Noach, the parah adumah was to be a symbol that life goes on and that a shattered people can emerge purified and even stronger than before.
But perhaps we can dig even deeper. While parah adumah demonstrates that impurity can be overcome, it is also quite unique as it is only one of two mitzvos in the Torah described as “zos chukas haTorah – this is the decree of the Torah.” Rashi explains that this is a “decree of the King for which one has no right to question.”
Judaism is a religion in which we encourage questions. In yeshiva we are trained to ask questions, and often times a good kasha is better than a good teirutz. Rashi is certainly not promoting blind faith and blanket acceptance of Torah without understanding and analysis. Rather, while we may question the rules, we do not question the ruler, Hashem. Life is complex and can be painful at times. 38 years of death could not have been easy. The new generation was a generation of orphans, and their parents had been a generation of slaves who died by the decree of Hashem. Neither is all too pleasant, and could give rise to many questions of faith. The Torah’s silent answer to these questions is that to overcome the pains of yesterday and to achieve a purity of spirit one must accept the sovereignty of our Master in Heaven, without question.