In this week’s Torah Portion we learn about how a person who has come into contact with a dead body can be purified to be allowed to enter the Temple. The Torah says that you must take a red cow and after it has been slaughtered, you shall burn it. You then take the ashes together with some burned cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread and put it into spring water, which is then sprinkled on the impure person.
The Midrash tells us the following story: “A gentile once asked Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai (RYBZ): “Doesn’t the law of the red cow, seem like sorcery which the Torah forbids?” RYBZ replied, “Have you ever seen a person afflicted with tezasis (a type of mental disorder)? “Yes,” the gentile replied. And how does one heal him? We make a concoction of the roots of various herbs, smoke it over fire and then sprinkle it on him and he becomes well. RYBZ replied: The same is true with the ashes of the red cow. The pupils of RYBZ who had witnessed this dialogue turned to him and said, ”Our teacher, that answer was fine to pacify the gentile, but what will you answer to us? RYBZ replied, “The dead person does not contaminate and the waters do not purify, rather G-d decreed that the dead person should contaminate and the waters shall purify. This is why when the Torah tells us about the red cow, it begins with the words, “This is the decree of the Torah”.
In Jewish writings the reasons given for the Torah’s commandments are Taamei Torah which literally means the tastes of Torah. A great Rabbi once said that the reason that they are called “A taste of Torah” is because just like the taste of food adds pleasure and sweetness to the food, but is not the core of the food, for even if the food did not have a taste, it would still supply the person with nutrition and energy. So too, the reasons of the Torah add sweetness and pleasure to our observance but are not the root and core to the commandment, since the core of the commandments is G-d’s will which supersedes intellect.