Monday, June 14, 2010

Giving Meaning to the Red Heifer

In this week's parsha, Chukas (Chukat), we have the mysterious commandment of the Parah Aduma (Red Heifer). This is what makes the name of the Parsha, Chukas, so appropriate. A Chok is a commandment that we do not know the reason for and is, in fact, something that the true reason is unknowable. This is why Rashi tells us on the second pasuk of this week's parsha (Bamidbar 19:2):

זאת חקת התורה: לפי שהשטן ואומות העולם מונין את ישראל לומר מה המצוה הזאת ומה טעם יש בה, לפיכך כתב בה חקה, גזירה היא מלפני ואין לך רשות להרהר אחריה:

This is the statute of the Torah: Because Satan (The Yetzer Hora: Etan's addition) and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, “ What is this commandment, and what purpose does it have?” Therefore, the Torah uses the term “statute.” I have decreed it; You have no right to challenge it. — [Yoma 67b]

Even though we are told that the commandment of the Para Aduma (Red heifer) can not be challenged based on human logic, that does not mean we can't learn valuable ideas from it. In fact, some of the most fundamental ideas found in Judaism can be understood through a proper dissection of the Para Aduma commandment. So, let's dissect the commandment (Bamidbar 19:2):

ב. זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְ־הֹוָ־ה לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין בָּהּ מוּם אֲשֶׁר לֹא
עָלָה עָלֶיהָ עֹל:

2. This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.

The question here is why should it be a Red Heifer that is perfect in it's redness(As Rashi tells us on this pasuk), it should have no physical blemishes and it should never have done any physical labor? I think that these details and their proper understanding can help us relate and give meaning to the commandment of the Red Heifer.

First, let's understand how the commandment of the Red Heifer works. As stated in Bamidbar 19, the ashes of the Red Heifer are combined with water and are used when a person comes in contact with a dead body. This person that comes in contact with a dead body becomes impure and needs to be sprinkled with the ashes of the Para Aduma in order to become ritually pure again. So the idea we should think about is, "How is a Para Aduma connected to a dead person?"

First, let us deal with the Hebrew word Para (פָרָה). Para here means cow, however, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch tells us that words that are spelled the same, although they have different meanings, have similar concepts behind them. The word Para can also mean to flourish or produce progeny. How interesting that something that symbolizes proliferation and life would be used to purify someone that became impure through death.

Next, we have the words Aduma Temimah (אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה) from the word Adam. Here it means perfectly red, however, the word Aduma can mean healthy or, as the first man was named, it can refer to man. However, it must be perfectly red because if it has two black hairs then it can no longer be called a Para Aduma because it is noticeably no longer a Red Heifer. Thus, we have the proliferating or healthy man found in the words of Para Aduma, according to Rav Hirsch.

The requirement that there be no Mum (מוּם) is for all korbanos. However, here we can take special notice of it because this is, indeed, not a korban. The Para Aduma is used to make water that will endow another with spiritual purity. Therefore, the Para itself must represent a state of being that the person wants to reach, no blemishes.

The last phrase in this pasuk tells us a great deal about this commandment. The phrase "upon which no yoke was laid" (אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָלָה עָלֶיהָ עֹל) hints to us the spiritual power of this commandment. What is the significance of the fact that this cow has never been put to work? For this, we have an excellent Maharal in Tiferes Yisroel in chapter one. He tells us:

"At the end of Tractate Kiddushin (82B) it says: 'We learned in a Braisa, Rebbe Shimon the son of Rebbe Elazar said, 'In all my days I never saw a deer that dried figs in the field, a lion that transported packages, or a fox that was a shopkeeper, rather these animals all get their livelihood without aggravation. However, these animals were only created to serve me (man), and I was created to serve G-D. So, just like these animals were created to serve me and have a livelihood without aggravation so too I, who am created to serve G-D, how much more so that I should have a livelihood without aggravation. Alas, I have made my actions disgusting and deprived myself of my livelihood for it says in Jeremiah (5:25) {Your sins have overturned these.}' This is the end of the Gemorah in Kiddushin. Behold, the Gemorah is explaining that the actions and work that man does for his livelihood are not because of man's greatness, rather these actions are because of his lack of perfection."

The Maharal uses the Gemorah in Kiddushin to teach us a very valuable lesson, man has to work because of his fall from grace. Working is due to a lack of perfection and holiness in a man. Therefore, we can understand that a Red Heifer that works has lost this spiritual and symbolic perfection. This is why a Red Heifer can not have ever had a yolk on its back, because this is a spiritual impurity. The Red Heifer must symbolize spiritual purity in order to purify a person who has come in contact with a dead person.

Now we can put all the pieces together and understand the meaning of the Red Heifer, at least on some level. So the "perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid" represents a proliferating or healthy man that has no spiritual blemishes and receives his sustenance without work. This represents what man was supposed to be before the sin of Adam eating the forbidden fruit! Thus, the point of the Red Heifer is to help us focus on what man was originally supposed to accomplish. What was that? The Maharal tells us that this is nothing other than the commandments from G-D. Originally, man was not supposed to die or work, rather man was supposed to follow G-D's commandments and everything else would be taken care of. However, once man "made his ways disgusting" as the Gemorah says, G-D made man work and die because man was unable to handle the responsibility of no death and no work. As the saying goes, "Idle hands do the devils work" and no hands are more idle than those who do not die or work.

However, what does this have to do with Bnei Yisroel? Why do they have to be constantly reminded that the only reason they had to come in contact with a dead person was because of Adam's sin? For this we turn to Rav Kook. He says (Kook, Midbar HaShur on Noach):

"At Mount Sinai, Israel reached the level of Adam before the Sin. Humanity would once again have enjoyed immortality, were it not for the subsequent sin of the Golden Calf (Talmud Bavli Avodah Zara 5a)."

This is why Bnei Yisroel must always be reminded of Adam's sin, because it was their's as well! Had they not sinned then we would again be living indefinitely. There would be no spiritual impurity from the dead. However, the Para Aduma is there as a reminder that we must constantly be watching ourselves and not give into sin. The disgusting actions that we perform like greed, lust, etc... must be curbed by our love and fear of G-D.

This enigmatic commandment can have great meaning to us if we concentrate on what it represents. Man was supposed to live forever and walk in the ways of G-D. By using the Para Aduma we are reminded that this IS still our ultimate goal, but the ease at which it was supposed to be attained has been altered. This was because of misdeeds and sin. Hopefully, we will all have the strength to overcome our base desires and focus on the idea of the Para Aduma, Man is supposed to live and follow in G-D's ways. However, the most important thing to realize about this commandment is that it applies to everyone. Every single person experiences death. There is not a single person that has not experienced death in some shape or form. Therefore, this commandment also teaches us that everyone is on the same level. No one has a pass. No matter how "great" you are, how rich you are, how many people listen to your words, you are just as responsible as everyone else. There is no pointing to someone else, everyone needs to be purified by the waters of the Para Aduma.

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