"This is the statute of the Torah, which the L-rd has commanded, saying: Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer, faultless, with no blemish…." (Num. 19:2)
All the commandments are eternal in the mind. Even though in practice they require a certain time and action, in thought they exist forever. This is because the Torah partakes of G‑d's divinity, and His divinity is eternal. The disciples of the Baal Shem Tov said that the entire Torah must always be found applicable in the mind and intellect, and one can learn from every mitzvah its [spiritual] allusion. They asked the Baal Shem Tov how this applies to the mitzvah of the Red Heifer, which was rarely performed even in the day of the Holy Temple. Furthermore, what is the significance of its ability to purify the impure and make impure the pure?
Without G‑d's influence in our lives, what are we?
The Baal Shem Tov answered that this pertains to the ego. Because if a person acts wrongly and is far from G‑d, the beginning of his reform depends upon the ego, and [actions that are] not for the sake of heaven [i.e. not with selfless intent]. For instance, in order to show off, or in order to merit the World to Come, for this too is a hidden type of egotism, in that he thinks it fitting for G‑d to reward him for his deeds. He imagines that he has done something for G‑d, when really, without G‑d's influence in our lives, what are we? How can we possibly receive reward?
However, it is impossible to realize this at first, and the person would remain in the "externalities" [i.e. trapped in a superficial relationship with life, and far from G‑d], G‑d forbid. Therefore, it is permitted for him to use pride, ostentation and self-centered actions, for "amidst selfish reasons, one comes to selflessness".
Selfless worship must be pure and clean from all traces of ego….
On the other hand, selfless worship must be pure and clean from all traces of ego, which will ruin the action. Ego, then, purifies the impure that are distant from G‑d, and defiles the pure that are already close to Him, for those who become prideful are despised by G‑d.
This applies even to tzadikim, who are already pure. They, too, must always follow this path, that requires both pride and humility to draw close to G‑d. This is because before a person wants to come close to G‑d through the performance of an important mitzvah, Torah study, or prayer, he is still far-off. Compared to the degree of closeness he will attain through this deed, he is, in a sense, still impure. It is impossible for him to come close to G‑d without his ego.
For just as there is Smallness and Largeness in holiness, so do they exist on the Side of Evil, G‑d forbid. Smallness in the Side of Evil occurs when the evil inclination tells us, "You are not fit to perform such an important mitzvah or act of worship as this." Then, one must become proud in the way of G‑d (see Chronicles II 17:6). This is as our Sages said (Sanhedrin 37a): "Why was Adam created alone, so that a [each] person should say, 'The world depends upon me.'" Lacking this attitude, his evil inclination will tell him that he is unfit to approach G‑d through his action. Thus, he must use his very ego to come close to G‑d, for this is really humility, as we explained. It only seems like pride compared to the evil inclination, who seeks to deceive him into thinking that it is a mitzvah to be lowly.
When he is actually involved in the act, he must be on guard to all forms of pride….
Thus, his pride purifies him and allows him to draw close to G‑d through Torah study, prayer, or the commandments. However, afterward, when he is actually involved in the act, he must be on guard to all forms of pride. He must humble himself before
G‑d and others. This is holy Smallness - not thinking that he is better than anyone else because they do not do this deed. It turns out that feeling egotistical during the actual performance of the mitzvah, when a person is called pure, actually makes him impure, G‑d forbid.
Now, pride is called a "heifer", for it increases and enlarges a person's mind. It is also red [usually associated with forces of negativity], from the side of the kelipot. Therefore, one must throw into the pyre of the heifer cedar wood, hyssop and crimson [wool], as the Midrash says: "One who is as proud as a cedar should lower himself like a hyssop." (Midrash Tanchuma, Metzora 3) And Maimonides determined that the rod of cedar wood must be a hand's breath long. (Hilchot Metzora, 11:1) That is, the power and the greatness that a person uses to perform the mitzvah has to be precisely measured to a hand's breath, and immediately afterward he must lower himself like a hyssop.
This is called "the Red Heifer that purifies the impure, and makes impure the pure".
[Translation and commentary by Eliezer Shore from Keter Shem Tov,part 2, p. 18a, as found in Sefer Baal Shem Tov, parashat Chukat;
reprinted with permission from www.baalshemtov.org