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Parshas Chukas (5773)

Cows, Snakes, and Know it alls

By Rabbi Elchanan Shoff

This is the mystery of the Torah that Hashem commanded, saying, “Tell the people of Israel to take a red cow, a perfect one, that has no flaw, and never had a yoke on it.” Bamidbar 19:2

The mystery of the Torah is that we can take a red heifer and burn it up, mixing the ashes with some hyssop and cedar bark, so that we can sprinkle the mixture on people who need to achieve purity. The whole thing is very tough to understand, and only one person ever truly understood it – Moshe. Yet, our Sages gave us a bit of insight in to this: “This can be compared to a maidservant’s child who dirtied the palace floor, and the king commanded the mother to come and clean up her son’s mess; so does the Red Heifer come and clean up the mess made when the Jews worshiped the Golden Calf. A calf is born of a cow, and thus, this mitzvah somehow corrects what was done when the Jews worshiped the Golden Calf. In fact, Baal Haturim even points out that the gematria of Para Aduma (Red Heifer) is the same as that of zeh al avon egel (this is because of the sin of the Golden Calf). And yet, this sounds quite strange. Is this red cow actually the mother of that Golden Calf? How are these two things conceptually connected, and what is the message to us?

Our Sages teach that the reason that we deserved the mitzvah of the ashes of the Red Heifer is because our ancestor Avraham humbly said, “I am but dust and ashes.” The Sfas Emes explains that this is because the commandment of the Red Heifer brings a person to humility. He points to Rashi, who tells us that the reason that we mix cedar and hyssop in with the ashes is because the cedar is the tallest of trees, and the hyssop, the smallest – to teach the arrogant person who sinned to make himself humble, and thus, be forgiven. Somehow, this whole thing is an exercise in humility. Yet, we remain in the dark.

When Adam and Chava sinned in Eden, the snake injected humankind with a spiritual filth, teaches the Talmud. But when the Jews stood at Sinai, it continues, that filth was cleansed from them. However, when they worshiped the Golden Calf, says the Zohar and Targum, that filth returned. But it did not return completely. Whatever this spiritual filth is – we have a path to remove it by the laws of the red heifer, which cleans up the mess that we made at the Golden Calf, bringing back a bit of that filth. Let us look a bit deeper.

Our Sages say that Hashem told only Moshe of the secret of the Red Heifer; nobody else was every privy to it. Sfas Emes explains that the reason for this is beyond normal logic, and thus, not attainable through the normal channels; however, by reaching it through non-logical channels, one can actually access it. By accepting that there is no logical reason, as we are normally trained to think there should be, says the Sfas Emes, we are, in fact, discovering the reason. Shem Mishmuel says something similar: Moshe made himself completely humble and treated himself as insignificant, and thus, was rewarded with the knowledge. But why specifically is this the path?

Moshe was the humblest of men. He and only he understood that really, compared to God, none of us really understand anything at all. And that is the secret of the Red Cow. It is the deep awareness that we really understand nothing. When one understands that, one has understood a very great thing. As long as a person is not completely humble, and still tries to understand things with his own limited head, he cannot understand the Red Heifer. Even the wisest of men, Shlomo, said about the Red Heifer, “I tried to grow wise [regarding it] and it remained far from me.” As long as you are trying to figure it out, it remains a step away.

Regarding when Adam and Chava ate from the forbidden tree, our great thinkers have all suggested ways to explain what they were thinking. Somehow, although Hashem had told them not to, they listened to the advice of the snake, and made a different decision. Just by being willing to listen to anything or anyone besides Hashem, they already brought that filth on to mankind. It was not the eating of the fruit that brought the filth on to mankind; the primary damage was thinking too much when God made His orders clear! That brought a spiritual filth onto man. But when the Jewish people stood at Sinai, and said “we will do, and we will listen,” and they left behind their own human thoughts in favor of accepting the Truth from Hashem, it was then that they grew clean! Sfas Emes explains that when they stood at the foot of the mountain, and they realized how distant they were from the Torah, that very awareness and humility is why they were taken from the bottom of the mountain to the highest of spiritual heights. And yet, the Jewish people once again slipped back to their old ways. They counted the days that Moshe was missing, and they began to think and make all sorts of calculations. They did not act with the humility that they ought to have learned from Sinai, a humble mountain. The humility to listen to and receive the Truth, even in times when all sorts of rationales are popping into one’s mind, is what the Jews achieved at Sinai, and squandered, in part, when they made the Calf. And the filth returned…in part.

The Red Heifer is, indeed, the mother of the Golden Calf. The fact that there are things that the human mind simply cannot fathom is the very reason that can even make attempts to solve these questions. Were everything clear, there would be no confusion to struggle with. The sin of the Golden Calf was born out of the human discomfort with our faculties. We deeply want to understand. But the Red Heifer also helps us repair the mistake that we made, by telling us that humility – and the awareness that although we have some level of understanding in many areas, at the end of the day, we really are small, like the hyssop plant – is the answer. When we learn that we really do not understand all that much, we will then know something far greater than we ever could have imagined. As the philosopher once said, “The goal of knowing Him is to know that we don’t know Him.”

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