Parashat Chukkat begins with the mysterious ritual of the Parah Adumah, the red heifer. The ceremony is intended to remove the ritual impurity that comes from contact with death. Anyone in this impure state cannot come near the Tent or Temple for a sacrifice, and a simple immersion in a mikvah is not enough.
The ritual involves a perfect red heifer that has never been used for work. It is slaughtered and burned completely by the kohen, and the ashes are mixed with water. That water is sprinkled on anyone who has come into contact with death, and purifies them. Anyone involved in the preparation of the Parah Adumah is, however, rendered impure until the evening -- including the kohen who performs the sacrifice -- and must immerse in water.
The midrash considers this to be one of the paradigms of a chok, a law that does not lend itself to rational explanation. These laws are also known as gezeira, or decree -- like the edict of a king which is simply obeyed because of the authority of the lawgiver. And the most well-known midrash describes a discussion between the sage Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and a Roman who comfronts him about the silliness of the law. Rabban Yochanan asks if the Roman has ever experienced the exorcism of an evil spirit. The Roman says of course, we burn some roots and pour water on the spirit. Rabban Yochanan says: It's the same thing.
When the Roman leaves, Rabban Yochanan's students say: Really? (Good for them!) Rabban Yochanan says: To you, students, I say that the water and the cow have nothing to do with purifying. It's simply a gezeira, a decree from God, there's nothing more to say.
....And yet. In one of the first midrash collections (Tanchuma), this story is preceded by another one. When Moshe came up to the mountain to receive the written Torah, he found God involved in a study session about the red heifer. A discussion about the ins and outs. And he heard God say to the angels: "The correct ruling on this manner is what Rabbi Eliezer my son says, which is that the heifer must be two years old." Moshe says to God: You are the Master of all heaven and earth, yet you rely on flesh and blood to say what the law is? God responds that there a tzaddik, a special righteous person coming one day to the world, and it's Eliezer.
Do these two midrashim fit together? One says that the red heifer is beyond our understanding. The other has God submitting to the cogitations of a rabbi. The midrash collection we have does not comment on this apparent contradiction at all.
I love it. Here is my take. Yes, the details of law of the heifer don't originate in any reason or philosophy. But once it's there, our God-given minds are attracted to it and begin to think about it, discuss it, debate it. There is a lot to discuss -- how old, how red, any requirements about the participants. Some of those side topics can become very meaningful. They might lead us to think about animals, about who deserves what kinds of honors in the community, or the symbolism of red.
And the point is: If we didn't have the red heifer to talk about, we'd have one less prompt to get into those issues. The strange law is a rock dropped in a pond; that's what causes the ripples, which continue to have an effect after the rock hits the bottom. The strange ritual might even rub us a wrong, like a scratch on our body -- but the healing and generating power of the body will come and do its work extra hard on the scratch.
So in that way, the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, both strains reason and invites it. What a shrewd lawgiver is our God!