Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Walk Article-Red Heifer


Parshat Para-5774

Rabbi David Walk


            What defines our humanity?  In Jewish thought there are two normative answers to that question.  The first approach is that we are the animal who speaks.  In many traditional texts humans are described as the apex of the pyramid of earthly existence, above the inanimate, the vegetative and the mobile animal world, by dint of our ability to speak (domem, tzomeach, holech, midaber).  In other, usually mystical, sources we are described as the ones who walk or move, because angels are omdim or immoveable, static.  They never change; neither improve nor regress.  We, on the other hand, can move up or down the spiritual ladder.  So, it seems that when we are viewed from the perspective of this world, we are the animals who talk, but when analyzed from the perspective of heaven we are the beings who can change.  However, in every system humans are distinct from both the animals below and the angels above by our ability to choose.  We are the only denizens of this world or the next with bechira chofshit, free will.  We'll see that this talent presents us with a problem when considering this week's special Torah reading, the section of the Red Heifer, para aduma

            Rabbi Joseph D. Soloveitchik often said that paradox is a hallmark of Jewish thought. Sensitive Jews learn to live with multiple or even contradictory messages. Perhaps the most fundamental paradox in Jewish philosophy is whether God is transcendent or immanent.  Is God very distant from us or intimately close?  Well, the paradox is that God is both.  As the Rav once said, 'The Jewish experience of God is antithetic, a polarity. It has both remoteness and intimate closeness.' The Red Heifer is often presented as also containing a perplexing paradox.  Usually the issue cited is that the water containing the dissolved ashes of the cow when sprinkled on the impure Jew makes one pure, but simultaneously makes the administering Cohen impure.  But I would like to suggest that there is a more fundamental paradox.  If we are supposed to be the animal with free choice, if we are supposed to decide for ourselves how to behave, how can there be mitzvoth (chukim) which we don't understand?  Either we just follow orders or we are expected to think for ourselves.  How can it be both?

            I think that Rashi hints at this conundrum.  At the beginning of the section describing the para aduma, Rashi explains the phrase 'this is the chukka of the Torah (Numbers 19:2)' by saying: Because Satan 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).  However, later in that paragraph, Rashi brings different material from Reb Moshe the Preacher, who quotes a Midrash that the Red heifer is an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf.  Here's the Midrash:  This can be compared to the son of a maidservant who soiled the king's palace. They said, 'Let his mother come and clean up the mess.' Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf (Midrash Tanchuma Chukath 8).  So, Rashi is presenting us with two conflicting views on the heifer.  Is it an unfathomable mystery or is it a relatively rational reminder of the sin of the Golden Calf?  And can we resolve this contradiction?

            The Ohr HaChayim attempts to unravel this inscrutability.  He suggests that when the verse calls the para aduma the chok or supra rational mitzvah of the Torah it means that this mysterious mitzvah helps us to understand a central idea to all Torah performances.  That idea is that when we accepted the mitzvoth and became a holy nation, ironically we became a magnet for impurity.  Just like a honey jar attracts flies and other unsavory things to its sweetness and goodness, so, too, the Jews attract impurity when we're not careful to remain uncontaminated.  Our purity can also be compared to a vacuum which draws in the stuff of the universe, and we need to combat that effect.  This difficult concept is connected to the anomalous presence of sanctity in our mundane world.  This principle therefore is true throughout the Torah world.  Para aduma is the paradigm, but the principle permeates the world of Torah, the Halachic universe.

            Now we can turn our attention to what I believe is paradox prime, and it is not about God.  And this is logical, because the Rav also said, 'Judaism is about the essence of man never the essence of God.'  The most fundamental paradox is the dual nature of humanity.  We are of this world and of the spiritual realm.  We humans straddle the divide between heaven and earth. 

It's time to go back to Rashi.  When Rashi said that this mitzvah is beyond our ability to question or challenge, because it's outside our intellectual zone, he's speaking to the spiritual human.  This is the part of us which proclaimed na'aseh v'nishma (we will do, and only later understand) at the foot of Mt. Sinai.  When Rashi quoted Reb Moshe the Preacher, on the other hand, he was talking to the earthly, physical part of us.  This side of our persona requires reasons and practical considerations.  So, my rational side is glad to hear that the para aduma fits into the history of our people, and atones for our greatest miscue.  Rashi understood that we humans look at things from both vantage points and therefore require an answer for both parts of my being.

The Red Heifer is called 'the statute of the Torah' because it teaches me a pervasive principle within the Torah world.  All of God's instructions must be seen as both chok and mishpat, incomprehensible dicta and rational law.  The lucidity of a mitzvah depends upon which part of my psyche is analyzing the precept.  In the final analysis we must perform every mitzvah like it's a chok, suspending our free will. However, we should scrutinize every mitzvah like it's a mishpat, like the rational beings God made us It's not easy, but it's rewarding.