Parshas Vayakheil-Pekudei (5775)
The service in the synagogue this Shabbos is full of bull.
This is because this Shabbos, in addition to the regularly scheduled reading of the weekly Torah portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei, we read a special portion known as Parshas Parah, which is the Torah portion in Numbers that discusses the Red Heifer (the cow whose ashes were used to purify those who had been contaminated through contact with a dead person).
The reason why Parshas Parah is always read at this time of year is because in days of old, when the Jewish people would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem for the festival of Passover, they would first have to purify themselves of any spiritual contamination before entering the Temple grounds. They would thus have to sprinkle themselves with the ashes of the Red Heifer (kids, don't try this at home!), and only then could they enter the holy site. To commemorate this time-honored practice, we read the portion of the Red Heifer at this time of year, when the holiday of Passover is just around the corner.
This special Parshas Parah reading also coincides with – or, as is the case this year, comes just one week after – the reading of the weekly Torah portion of Ki Sisa, whose central theme is the Golden Calf that the Jewish people worshipped at the foot of Mount Sinai after realizing that Moses was not going to reappear.
And it's not coincidental that these two portions are read around the same time of year. There is a major connection between the Jewish people's worship of the Golden Calf and the subsequent commandment of the Red Heifer.
Rashi, in his commentary to Numbers 19:2, on the portion that discusses the Red Heifer, quotes the following Midrash in the name of Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan:
"This can be compared to the son of a maidservant who soiled the palace of a king. They said, 'Let his mother come and wipe away the excrement’. Similarly, let the cow [the Red Heifer] come and atone for the [Golden] calf."
Now I bet you are wondering what in the world is that supposed to mean? How can some red bovine, whose ashes are sprinkled on a person who was contaminated through contact with a dead person, possibly be atonement for the Jewish people's grave sin of worshipping a golden calf??!!
But please.... don't have a cow! The connection can be readily understood.... but first we have to appreciate what all this bull is really all about. What is the symbolism of the par - the bull - in the Torah, and why does it keep on showing up all over the place?
To understand that, we must first take a look at the uniqueness and mystical qualities of the Hebrew language.
A WORD ABOUT HEBREW WORDS
The Talmud teaches us that the letters of the Hebrew alphabet are the very building blocks of creation. In other words, when G-d created light, He didn't go down to His basement laboratory and tinker with filaments and electric current. He just said the three letters that make up the word ohr (light) in Hebrew - alef, vav, reish – and.... miracle of miracles!.... there was light!
So, you see, there is an intimate connection between the object that was created and the word used to create that object - because the one begat the other. As a matter of fact, the Hebrew word for object, davar, has the exact same linguistic root as the Hebrew word for speech, dibur. And that's because G-d merely spoke the word..... and the object came into being.
But it goes even further than that. The Kabballah (Jewish Mysticism) teaches that since the Hebrew letters of any given object are intimately bound up with the essence of that object, as mentioned above, one can properly understand the essence of any physical object merely by examining the letters that combine to form the word that was used by G-d to create it.
Take the Hebrew word aluf, for example. The word means leader, teacher (or military general, as in the Israeli army), and consists of the root letters alef, lamed, peh. The alef, says the Kabballah, which is an inarticulate, silent letter whose numerical value equals one, represents the One Above, Who silently guides the world. It also alludes to Divine wisdom, which a person has within himself, and which resides in the brain. The lamed is related to the Hebrew word limud, which means teaching, and it represents the connection between thought and its external expression. A teacher takes the Torah knowledge and Divine wisdom within himself, and transmits that knowledge to others. The peh is a Hebrew word meaning "mouth", and represents the external expression in the world of the person's inner thoughts.
So that an aluf, or a teacher, is someone who takes his inner alef, or wisdom, and is lamed, or connecting that, to his peh, to the outside, to affect his or his students' external actions.
[For an elaboration on this most fascinating concept, including many examples of its application, I recommend two really great books: The first is called The Wisdom in the Hebrew Alphabet by Rabbi Michael L. Munk, published by Artscroll Mesorah. The second is called Letters of Fire by Matityahu Glazerson, published by Feldheim.]
PROPER BALANCE AND THE WILD MAN
Rabbi Matityahu Glazerson, in his book Torah, Light & Healing, uses this concept to explain the Hebrew word pe'er, or balance:
“The Kabballah teaches us that tiferes, meaning resplendent balance, and whose root is the word pe'er, is actually one of the attributes of G-d. It is a shining beauty that results from balance and harmony. The great Kabballist, Rabbi Isaac Luria, writes that all healing depends on this Divine attribute of tiferes. This can be shown by the fact that pe'er, the linguistic root of tiferes, is spelled with the same letters as rofei, the linguistic root meaning "to heal".
“Let's examine this word pe'er, which seems to hold the key to good health and proper balance. The three root letters of the word are peh, alef, reish. The word consists of an alef, which as we mentioned before, represents G-d and Divine wisdom, the repository of which is found in the brain or intellect. It also contains the two letters peh and reish, which together form the Hebrew word par, or bull. These letters stand for raw power, as the bull is the most powerful of domesticated animals. [Note the similarity in sound between English "power" and Hebrew par.]
“In the word pe'er, meaning balance and harmony, the letter alef, meaning Divine wisdom and intellect, is in the central position, where it balances power and unrestrained energy (par), through its service to G-d. But sometimes the par in the person gets the better of him. His par, the tremendous energy and power that he has, is not balanced by the divinely inspired intellect. And when the par inside him takes the leading position, he becomes a pereh, the Hebrew word for a wild man, spelled peh, reish, alef. In this position, where animal brute strength dominates and subjugates the divinely directed intellect, proper balance is missing and good health is lost.”
Which brings us back to the Golden Calf and the Red Heifer.....
THE BEST "YOKE" EVER
When the Jewish people stood at the foot of Mount Sinai 3327 years ago and received G-d's Torah, they were really getting a Divine recipe for balance and spiritual health. Because that's what the Torah teaches in its every story and commandment - how to harness all the powerful physical, emotional and intellectual drives within ourselves and to use them in a productive and harmonious manner. A Torah-true lifestyle should yield a harmonious and healthy life, in which all the different parts of our personality and psyche have the proper pe'er, the resplendent balance that could only come from a divinely directed source.
A good analogy for this could be the yoke that is placed on the bull or ox in order to harness and channel all that brute strength and energy to a productive end. It might look like a burden to those who don't properly understand it, but the truth is that this yoke is what brings out the best that the bull has to offer. The Torah that G-d gave us is that yoke that serves to harness the amazing power that we have and to use it in the most productive manner.
But not everyone can appreciate that yoke. And when the Jews saw that Moses wasn't coming back from up there on the mountain, some of them started to throw that Divine yoke, the Torah, off of their backs, removing the alef, the divine guidance that their intellect should have given them. And when the alef is gone from the pe'er or balance that the Torah is supposed to give us, all that's left is par, brute, unrestrained animal energy - and they began to worship the par that was the Golden Calf.
The Midrash tells us that when the Jewish people began to worship the Golden Calf, they brought death into the world. This means that when they lost the proper balance between the brute force of their physical side - the par within - and their divinely directed intellect - the alef within - proper balance and pe'er was lost and ultimately death was the result.
DEAD BODIES AND THE DUALITY OF LIFE
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, in his commentary to Numbers Chapter 19, explains the idea behind the spiritual impurity and contamination of coming in contact with a dead person’s body.
In order for us to live a properly balanced lifestyle, in which all the drives within us are channeled and harnessed and utilized in the most healthy and beneficial way, we must always be cognizant of this duality within us - that we are ultimately a combination of two different forces, one spiritual and one physical, and that these two must be carefully balanced. But there are occasions upon which we are in danger of forgetting this key knowledge - there are times in life when we don't see Moses coming down the mountain - and we begin to think that there is nothing more to life than just the physical side, and we let the par within us get the upper hand.
One such occasion is when we come in contact with death - with a dead person - and we start to think that there is nothing after this world, everything is just this world. Life's a beach and then you die, we say. And when that happens - when as a result of our contact with death and its negative message we start to worship the "golden calf" inside us - we are in danger of losing the precious balance that is so necessary for our physical and spiritual health.
So we take the Red Heifer, the bull representing all that brute physical power and raw energy, and we sprinkle its ashes upon ourselves to remind us that ultimately all that energy and raw power will not last forever and that our physical side will return to ashes, while only our souls shall remain forever. This serves to "atone" for the sin of worshipping the "golden calf" inside us, and helps to restore the pe'er and proper balance that we truly need in life.
UP TO PAR FOR PASSOVER
In light of the above, we can gain a new understanding as to why the portion of the Red Heifer is read before the upcoming holiday of Passover.
Passover is the festival that celebrates our individual and national freedom. But the danger is that we might forget what all that freedom is for. Is it freedom to do whatever our par, the unrestrained raw energy inside us, wants to do? Or is it the freedom to become the most balanced and productive we can become, through properly balancing all the energy and emotions within us through a divinely directed intelligence?
So we read about the Red Heifer and it serves to remind us how the Jewish people reacted when they came in contact with a dead person, and felt in danger of losing that crucial balance in life.
As we approach another Passover season, may G-d grant us the gift of pe'er, the gift of a harmonious and beautifully balanced life, in which all our energy and abilities and emotions are used in a productive way, and in which we all have the best of spiritual and physical health.
[Sources: Torah, Light & Healing by Matityahu Glazerson]