Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller
This week, we will read the special addendum of פרשת פרה together with the weekly sidra. This special reading discusses the need for ritual cleansing from contact with the dead by preparing and sprinkling the ash water of the פרה אדומה, the Red Heifer. The connection to this part of the holiday cycle is that we need to pay attention to our preparation to bring the Korban Pesach, and all Jews are obligated to be ritually pure by the time that Erev Pesach arrives. The entire process and mitzvah of Parah Aduma is fraught with mystery and seems to defy human logic. Those involved in processing the Parah Aduma become ritually impure because of their involvement, yet the ash which is produced is used to purify people who are tamei — impure from contact with the dead. This paradox led Shlomo, the wisest of all men, to declare, “I thought I would be the wisest; yet it eludes me” (Koheles 7:23).
Interestingly, Rashi quotes Rebbi Moshe HaDarshan who gives a partial explanation to this exotic ritual. He says that since the heifer is the mother of the calf and the Jewish people sinned with the Eigel HaZahav, the Golden Calf, “Let the mother come and clean up the soiling caused by her child.” This explanation seems vague and creates more questions than answers. Firstly, what is the connection between tumas meis – the impurity which results from contact with the dead and the sin of the Golden Calf? Secondly, how does this ritual correct that sin?
The sin of the Golden Calf was the result of the Jewish people losing their composure. They thought they had just witnessed the demise of their leader Moshe Rabeinu, and therefore they were leaderless in the middle of the desert with no plan. They were desperate for an intermediary to intercede with Hashem and to carry on the mission of Moshe. They figured that they would do what they had seen the Egyptians do, resort to idolatry which would provide them with a way to control their destiny. They knew that this was a terrible deviation from what they had just been told at Har Sinai but they rationalized it as, desperate situations justify desperate means.
The essence of their sin was this rationalization. They had been taught by Moshe time and time again that they need to trust Hashem and rely on Him alone without attempting to resolve issues about their destiny with human solutions. This is where they failed when they made the Golden Calf. The consequences of this failure were dramatic indeed. The Gemara (Avoda Zarah 5a) explains the pesukim in Tehillim 82 where Hashem exclaims, “I had planned for you to become immortal like the angels; indeed (because of the sin of the Golden Calf) you will have to die like people.”
We had arrived at Har Sinai proclaiming, “Naase V’Nishma,” willing to do everything even if we could not understand the logic. This is the secret of the angels. They obey without questions and this attitude would have brought us immortality. However, we regressed during the Eigel HaZahav and lost this promised status. Thus, mortality is an outcome of our inability to place sufficient trust in Hashem and follow him without resorting to our own devices. This is what Rebbi Moshe HaDarshan is suggesting about the ritual of Parah Adumah; it is inexplicable and seems irrational, yet we follow it without question to train ourselves not to question Hashem’s reasoning. This is how the mother comes and cleans up the soiling caused by her child which relates to how the Parah, a mature and stable adult cleans up the impetuous action of the wayward child.
This special reading is part of Chazal’s planning to prepare us for the Yom Tov of redemption, Pesach. This holiday reaffirms our faith and trust in Him and the message of the Parah reminds us what the level of expectation that Hashem has for His people. Let us usher in this season with renewed faith and trust and the commensurate loyalty to His word.