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Chukat: The Secret of the Red Heifer

The red heifer purifies those who are impure and renders those who are ritually pure, impure (such as the person who sprinkles the ashes). This is the Red Heifer’s deep secret, about which the wisest of all men, King Solomon said, “I said, I will grow wise and yet it [the secret of the Red Heifer] remains far from me.”[1]

The Ba’al Shem Tov explains:[2]

This addresses the issue of loftiness. The evil inclination says to a person, “You are unworthy of performing a mitzvah like this—one that is so great and important.” Thus, a person should strive to “elevate his heart to pursue the Godly path.”[3] …He must say to himself, “The world depends on me.” …And so, with this sense of loftiness, he will purify and bring himself close to God, when he engages in Torah or prayer or a mitzvah.”

In other words, the Ba’al Shem Tov reveals that the state of impurity imparted by death, from which the Red Heifer’s ashes purify a person, is akin to a mood of indifference and inaction that leaves a person limp and apathetic. The individual who is in this state will come up with various excuses: Who am I and what am I that I should act? This is where loftiness is needed. Loftiness in this sense is a feeling of positive ambition and self-confidence. Of course, I will act; I can rectify the entire world! This is the essence of the Red Heifer ashes, the essence of vibrant life, which purifies the impure.

But the very same feeling that can purify the individual who is impure can defile the individual who is pure. How so? The Ba’al Shem Tov continues:

“But afterward, when he is already engaged in action… the individual must safeguard himself against any hint of loftiness. He must deprecate himself before God and before everything. This is known as the state of sacred inferiority. It means that the person will not imagine being greater than others around him when he sees that they have not awakened to perform the action he has taken… It is then that loftiness defiles the pure, God forbid.

After performing a good deed, one must purge any feelings of loftiness and replace them solely with feelings of lowliness and inferiority. If he does not do so, he is liable to fall into a state of vanity and pride in himself. These will corrupt all that he has put into the mitzvah performed. In short, it transforms the pure into the impure.

One must know that there are tzaddikim who never rest. They are constantly striving for more. They are in a constant state of, “And his soul was lofty in the ways of God”[4]—a state of Divinely inspired self-confidence pushing them to constantly act. Still, for all their loftiness, they are forever in a state of lowliness for they do not feel vanity for even a moment. A tzaddik like this feels that he has yet to do anything at all.

Image: Malene Thyssen, CC BY-SA 3.0,

[1]. Ecclesiastes 7:23.

[2]. Ba’al Shem Tov Al HaTorah, Chukat.

[3]. See 2 Chronicles 17:6.

[4]. 2 Chronicles loc. cit.

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