Red Heifer – a statute
PLEASE NOTE: Because of the timing of the end of Pesach, Chukat is the Parasha this week in Israel and next week in the Diaspora.
By Rabbi David Sedley
Parshat Chukat begins with the laws of the red heifer, the ashes of which would be used to purify anyone who touched a corpse. Yet, the same ashes would make someone who was pure impure.
This law is described by the Torah and the commentaries as the quintessential “statute” – a law that is beyond human reason and logic. Even Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men, was unable to understand the rationale for these laws (Bamidbar Rabba 19).
Rabbi Eliezer explains the laws
Yet there was one rabbi from the Mishna who became closely associated with explaining its laws. Midrash Tanchuma states:
When Moshe ascended to heaven, he found the Holy One, blessed is He, sitting and learning the section of the red heifer. He said, ‘Eliezer, My son, says, ‘A heifer is three years old, a calf is two years old.’ [Moshe] said to Him, ‘Master of the Universe, everything above and below is Yours, yet you say the halacha in the name of a human of flesh and blood?’ God replied, ‘There will be a righteous man in the future who will arise in My world and will explain the section of the red heifer.’ [Moshe] said, ‘May it be Your will that he is a descendant of mine.’
How did Rabbi Eliezer merit that God Himself would recite halachot in his name? And why was he so closely associated with the laws of the red heifer?
Perhaps the answer to those questions can be derived from another famous story about Rabbi Eliezer.
Proof from Heaven
The Talmud (Bava Metzia 59a-b) talks about a certain type of oven. Rabbi Eliezer held that it was ritually pure, while the other rabbis said it was impure. Rabbi Eliezer brought every possible logical argument to support his opinion, but the rabbis refused to change their minds.
Once he saw that he could not convince them logically, Rabbi Eliezer began to bring supernatural proofs. “If the halacha is like me, let this carob tree prove it,” he said. Immediately, the carob tree flew up into the air. But the rabbis refused to accept a proof from a tree.
So Rabbi Eliezer brought proofs from a nearby stream and the walls of the Beit Midrash. But his opinion was still not accepted. Eventually, he called out, “If the halacha is like me, let Heaven prove it.” A voice came out from Heaven and said, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer when the halacha is always like him.”
Then Rabbi Yehoshua stood up and said, “It is not in Heaven.”
The story continues to say that on that day God smiled and said, “My children have defeated Me.” At the same time, the other rabbis ostracized Rabbi Eliezer and rejected all his previous rulings.
Appeal to tradition
Rabbi Yehoshua’s statement is the basis for all halacha since his time. Any ruling must be justified with rational arguments and proofs. Yet that was not how Moshe decided halacha. If Moshe didn’t know the answer to a question, he would appeal directly to God.
And similarly, Rabbi Eliezer upheld the halacha he heard from previous generations going all the way back to Sinai, even if he couldn’t convince the other rabbis to agree with him using reason. Rabbi Eliezer said to Rabbi Yehoshua, “You did not hear [that halacha from our teachers] but I heard it,” (Nidda 7b).
Moshe’s spiritual descendant
Only Rabbi Eliezer, who had the tradition going all the way back to Moshe was able to explain the laws of the red heifer. He could bring rational arguments and then go beyond them, appealing for miraculous support. The other rabbis limited themselves to logic and reason; Rabbi Eliezer appealed directly to God and to tradition.
Perhaps this is what the midrash means when it says Moshe wanted Rabbi Eliezer to be one of his descendants. He wanted someone to uphold the laws from Sinai and the received tradition regardless of the arguments the other rabbis challenged him with.
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