Torah for the Times

Friday, June 29, 2012 - 9 Tammuz, 5772

Torah Reading: Chukat (Numbers 19:1 - 22:1)
Candle Lighting Time: 8:13 PM
Shabbat ends: 9:22 PM

The Mother of All Existence

The Ultimate Enigma

This week’s parsha introduces a mitzvah that is described by the Torah as the ultimate enigma. This is the ritual of the parah adumah-the Red Heifer. This MItzvah involved a person who had come in contact with a dead body who is thereby rendered tamei. This word, which defies translation, describes the diminished spiritual state of this individual. To “purify” oneself, the Torah commands us to take a completely red cow, slaughter it, burn it, mix the ashes with spring water and sprinkle this mixture on the affected person on the third and seventh day after their defilement.

In describing this ritual, the parsha begins with the words: “Zot Chukat HaTorah, This is the statute of the Torah.” The Hebrew word for statute is chukah which our Sages state connotes a commandment for which there is no rational explanation.

Generally speaking, the 613 Biblical mitzvos have been divided into three categories: mishpatim, eidos and chukim.

Mishpatim are the rational commandments. Had the Torah not been given we would have anticipated these mitzvos. Included in this category are the commandments against theft and murder.

Eidos are the testimonial commandments that are dedicated to remembering historical events or ideals. Observing the Shabbos is a reminder of G‑d’s creating the world, Passover is a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt and a Mezuzah is a reminder of G‑d’s constant protection of our home, etc. And though we might not have thought of these Mitzvos ourselves, once they were given to us they made sense. They seem quite logical and reasonable.

Chukim are the trans-rational commandments for which no reason is given and we cannot rationalize. And of all the commandments that are in this category, the one that stands out as being the most enigmatic is the focus of this week’s parsha: the ritual of the Parah Adumah. Thus the parsha begins: “This is the statute of the Torah,” to underscore that this is the ultimate irrational commandment.

Rashi encapsulates all of the above in his opening comment: “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. (G‑d says,) “I have decreed it; you have no right to challenge it.”

Mother Cleaning up Her Child’s Mess

Yet, Rashi, in a subsequent comment, seems to contradict himself when he offers a rather rational explanation for this Mitzvah in the name of Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan:

“This can be compared to the child 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.”

In other words, the Red Heifer (the “mother”) acted as an atonement for the sin of the golden calf (the “child”).

This explanation would appear to place this ritual in the category of eidos/ testimony. The mother cow that is used in this ritual reminds us of the sin of the golden calf, and it comes – along with the process of Teshuvah, (usually translated as repentance, but more accurately as “return”) - as an atonement for it, just as a mother cleans up her child’s mess.

Why then is this mitzvah characterized as the ultimate enigma when it conveys a very reasonable symbolic message?

The Enigma of Teshuvah

Rabbi Dovber, the Magid of Mezritch (the successor to the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of the Chassidic movement) explains that it is not the Red Cow itself that is the enigma. Rather the enigma is the very concept that the person can find atonement for sin – whether through the Red Cow or – more to the point - through the process of Teshuvah. One would have expected that the person who sins has severed his ties with his very G‑dly source of life. If a person were to fatally injure himself, would mere remorse for his action bring him back to life? In essence, a transgression is a self-inflicted fatal injury. And yet, G‑d has provided for the process of Teshuvah which has the ability to reconnect ourselves with G‑d, to recreate those very ties to g-d that were severed. This,the Maggid explains, is what our Sages meant when they stated that Teshuvah preceded the creation of the world. The world itself that is governed by the rules of nature were preceded by a higher force; the power of overriding the natural system of cause and effect.

Thus, the great Kabbalist, the Arizal, states that Teshuvah is the “supernal mother.” Just as a mother precedes and is the source of the life of her child, so too Teshuvah precedes and indeed sustains and nurtures the world. Teshuvah is the mother of existence.

The analogy of a mother for Teshuvah explains Rashi’s comparison of the Red Heifer to the mother who cleans her soiled child. It represents the power of Teshuvah—the mother of all existence—to remove the stain of transgression from the child.

And it is this power of Teshuvah, that is highlighted and represented by the Red Cow, that is the real enigma. The power of Teshuvah is indeed one that transcends the bounds of logic and nature.

Why Single Out the Red Heifer?

One may still raise the question. The story of the Red Heifer is not the only time the Torah refers to Teshuvah. Indeed, a good portion of the Book of Leviticus is about sacrifices that atone for our sins. What is so unique about this specific sacrifice? Why is this indirect reference to Teshuvah—i.e., the Red Cow that represents the mother who cleans the mess of her children—the one that is characterized as the ultimate enigma of Torah?

The sin of the golden calf was not just one of the most—if not the most—serious violation of G‑d’s commandments. It was a reversal of the entire process of bringing life to the world.

On the very first day of creation of Adam and Eve, they dealt a crushing blow to life by listening to the seditious advice of the serpent and partaking of the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

When the Torah was given at Sinai, our Sages tell us, impurity and death departed from our world. That situation lasted only until the Jews worshipped the golden calf. That transgression reversed the life sustaining revelation of Sinai. The golden calf debacle was more than just a colossal failing; the entire Sinai phenomenon was undercut by this negatively transformative experience.

Reversing the Reversal

To elaborate: When G‑d gave us the Torah, He gave us the capacity to bring eternal life to the world. The physical dimension of life would exist in tandem with the spiritual. As a result of the sin of the golden calf, the ability to bring eternal life into the world was removed until the Messianic Age when the world will be totally rid of all the negative influences, including death.

It is no wonder that the numerical value of the word Moshiach is the same as the word serpent (nachash). Only in the Messianic Age we will be totally cleansed of every trace of the impurity and death introduced by the original nachash/serpent.

And while we have to wait for Moshiach to reverse the negativity of the golden calf, that process began with the introduction of the Red Heifer ritual. That introduced not just the power of Teshuvah, but the power of Teshuvah to bring about the complete “reversal of the reversal” caused by the golden calf.

When we were told that the ritual of the Parah Adumah is like the mother that can clean up the mess of the children, we discovered that we can connect to a primordial “mother” power that transcends, and can therefore mend, even our damaged connection to G‑d, through Torah.

The Four Responses to Sin

Our Sages tell us that there are four responses to sin:

“Wisdom says, ‘let the person who sinned be pursued by his own sin.’”

Wisdom and logic dictate that negative behavior begets negative results.

“Prophecy says, ‘Let the sinner die.’”

Prophecy is the ultimate manifestation of one’s spirituality. The laws of spirituality dictate that when we degrade ourselves and sever our connections to the spiritual realms, we are in effect severing our life line. Physical life is nurtured by its spiritual source.

“Torah says, ‘Let the sinner bring a sacrifice and he will be atoned for.’”

Torah knowledge, which transcends even the spiritual sources of life, provides the sinner with a mitigating “defense” by suggesting that it is the animal in us that causes us to sin. Thus, the animal sacrifice is Torah’s way of reducing the severity of the transgression.

“The Holy One Blessed Be He says, ‘Let him do Teshuvah and he will be atoned for.’”

Teshuvah, thus, transcends even our connection to G‑d through Torah. Teshuvah not only gives and restores life, it even removes every trace of impurity that a sacrifice cannot.To do Teshuvah is to connect to the G‑dly energy that preceded and transcended creation, just as Moshiach, our Sages say, transcends and precedes creation.

We can now understand why the Red Heifer is the ultimate enigma of Torah. Its message of Teshuvah and its reversal of the golden calf decline represent the enigmatic G‑dly energy of the pre-creation past and of the Messianic future.

Moshiach Matters
It is important to complain to Hashem about the length of the Exile and cry out “Ad Mosai? Till When (do we have to be in this bitter Exile)?” There are those that might question the appropriateness of speaking to G‑d with such force. In truth, there are many verses in the Bible which speak exactly in this tone of voice, as in: (Zecharya 1:12) “Ad Mosai, Till when will you refrain from having mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah...?” (The Rebbe, Hisva’aduyos, 1984, vol. 2, pg 989)
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