Whenever the authors of Midrashim have a question about a particular Torah text but they don’t want to officially ask it, they will insert a character into the Midrashic narrative who will ask the question on their behalf. In Numbers Rabbah 19:8, the authors present us with an idol worshipper who questions the 1st century sage Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai.
The idol worshipper states: Your Torah’s rituals look just like witchcraft! You bring a red heifer, burn it, and take its ashes in order to use them as a remedy for impurity.” Rabbi Yochanan asked: “When you have a situation in the community where someone is considered impure, what do you do?” The idol worshipper proceeded to list rituals that resembled the ritual of the red heifer. After the idol worshipper left, Rabbi Yochanan’s students said: “Rabbi, you gave the idol worshipper an answer that satisfied him, but what answer will you give to us?” Rabbi Yochanan responded: “The real answer behind this ritual is not in the intricacies of the ritual itself but rather that God is the one who ultimately purifies.”
Rabbi Yochanan demonstrated that we must move beyond trying to understand the exact reasons for seemingly strange rituals, such as the ritual of the red heifer that is featured in Parashat Chukat. It is through particpating in Jewish rituals, be it making Havdallah, or shaking the Lulav on Sukkot, that we bring God’s presence into our communities.