By Rabbi Joshua (ritually known as The Hoffer) Hoffman
Parshas Chukas presents us with the laws of the parah adumah, or red heifer, whose ashes are used to ritually purify a person who has become defiled through contact with a human corpse. Although, ultimately, the reason behind this series of laws is a mystery, as the rabbis tell us, some limited explanations have been offered. Rashi, citing Rav Moshe HaDarshan, says that the process is analogous to the child of a maidservant that dirtied the palace. Its mother is summoned to clean up the sullying. So, too, a mess was caused with the sin of the golden calf, and the parah adumah, the red heifer, came to clean it up.
Rashi's explanation is a bit problematic in light of his comments in Parshas Beshalach. There he says, in connection with the verse which says that, at Marah, the people received 'chok and mishpat,' or a statute and a law, that they were given the laws of parah adumah, which, presumably, corresponds to the 'statute' given there. Although there is another reading of Rashi, according to which it was the laws of honoring one's parents that were given at Marah, the usual reading seems more in line with the correspondence in the usual reading, identifying the law as a statute, a law not readily understood, which is more fitting for parah adumah than for honoring one's parents. If this is indeed so, how can Rashi say that parah adumah comes to atone for the eigel, seeing that the laws were given before the eigel was worshipped?
Perhaps we can suggest an answer based on the comments of Rav Yosef Salant in his Be'er Yosef, and Rav Eliyahu Lopian in his Lev Eliyahu. They say that while Rashi's comments at the beginning of the parsha, that the term chukas haTorah - 'statute of the Torah' - in the context of the parah adumah, refers to those laws, which the nations of the world criticize the Jews for, because they seem to make no sense, it can also be explained as referring the manner in which God runs the universe, which, to the human being seems to make no sense. Only God, in His infinite wisdom, knows what He does. Just as it is necessary to accept all the laws of the Torah as coming from God's infinite wisdom, even when we don't understand them, so, too, must we accept His running of the universe as coming from His infinite wisdom, even when we don't understand it.
Following this explanation of the term ' chukas haTorah,' we can reconcile the two Rashis in regard to parah adumah. While it is true that the nation worshipped the eigel only after the laws of parah adumah were given at Marah, the underlying cause of that worship existed already, before Marah. People turn to idolatry when they feel that life's challenges are beyond their control, and that by turning to an idol, which is really only a projection of the human himself (see Henri Frankfort's work, Before Philosophy), he can control of his own life. The laws of parah adumah teach us that it is God who is in control, even when we don't understand His ways, and we must submit to His decisions. This notion had to be inculcated in the people, and, as the Ramban explains, in Parshas Beshalach, the laws given at Marah were meant for the nation to study and become familiar with while they were on their journey from Egypt. The message taught by the laws of the parah adumah, which seem to be self-contradictory, in that the ashes of the parah simultaneously purify some people and defile others, serve as an example of chukas haTorah, and just as we must submit to all of God's laws, so, too, must we submit to the manner in which He conducts the universe.