Chukkat records a major part of our history. It covers the death of Miriam and Aaron. The striking of the rock caused Moses to be denied entry to the Promised Land. We battled with tribes on the east of the Jordan. But what the Parasha is best known for is the extraordinary Ordinance of the Red Heifer; the separation of the pure from the impure. Even Solomon could not explain it.
Why do we recall such a ritual? Was it part of our history or something else? The word “History” does not appear in the Torah but the word for remember does. There are things we do in our lives which are hard to rationalise but remain embedded in our customs and our memories. As Maimonides puts it:
“Those commandments, whose object is generally evident, are called ‘judgments’ (mishpatim); those whose object is not generally clear are called ‘ordinances’ (hukkim).”
We still do them.
There is a story told about the Baal Shem Tov who, when called to avert evil, went to a spot in the forest, lit a fire and prayed. A later disciple faced with the same evil went to the forest, lit a fire but had forgotten the prayer. His descendant went to the forest and did not know how to light a fire and did not know the prayer. A further descendant, asked to avert evil, had forgotten where to go in the forest, could not light a fire, did not know the prayer but still remembered what he was supposed to do.
What we do may seem irrational to others but as Jews it is our heritage.