Parshas Parah

The Yoke's On You!

The third of the four special readings at this time of year is called Parashas Parah, which is the section of the Torah that discusses the laws of the Red Heifer (Parah Aduma). Some even hold that this reading, like Parashas Zachor (which was read the Shabbos before Purim), is prescribed by the Torah itself. This parsha was read during Temple times in advance of Rosh Chodesh Nissan to remind those people who had become spiritually defiled through contact with the dead, and therefore unable to offer the Pesach-Offering, to become purified through the water containing the ashes of the Red Heifer.

But, you may ask, "We don't have the Temple, the ashes of the Red Heifer, and the ability to offer a Korban-Pesach today ... Why do we adhere to this tradition?"

There is a concept in the Talmud that, if one endeavors to fulfill a mitzvah and, for reasons beyond his control, he is prevented from carrying out his will, still, Heaven accounts it to us as if he did in fact complete the mitzvah (Brochos 6a). Hence, when we read this parsha, we are regarded as if we had purified ourselves from our defilement, and rendered ourselves fit for bringing our sacrifices in the proper time.

However, there is another reason why this tradition has relevance today as well. The Parah Aduma represents the quintessential chok (statute) in the Torah, whose meaning was revealed only to Moshe Rabbeinu. Even Shlomo HaMelech, called the wisest man of all time, wrote of the Parah Aduma:

"All this have I thought I would attain wisdom, but it is distant from me." (Koheles 7:23)
Nevertheless, in spite of the mystical background of this mitzvah, the rabbis had this to say regarding this statute:
"Why are only male animals valid for all the sacrifices, while here a female is required? Rav Ivo said: It can be compared to the son of a maidservant who dirtied the king's palace. The king ordered, "Let his mother come and clean up the filth!" Likewise did G-d say, "Let the heifer come and atone for the act of the golden calf!" (Yalkut Shimoni, 759).
In other words, though we may not understand the details of the golden calf, how it affects spiritual purification from the dead and its inherent Paradox (see Parashas Tzav, 5757), we do know that the Parah Aduma comes in response to the golden calf. This is one of the reasons why this mitzvah was given to the Jewish people on the day the Mishkan, which was also a response to the golden calf, was erected. Therefore, to understand what the golden calf represented is to understand the role of Parashas Parah in advance of Pesach, even in our time.
"This, Israel, is your god, who brought you out of Egypt!" (Shemos 32:4)
This was the cry of the Erev Rav after the golden calf literally popped out of the furnace. After Moshe appeared to have been detained beyond expectation, says the midrash, the Erev Rav seized the opportunity to create panic among the people and steer them away from G-d, back to Egyptian idol worship.

However, hadn't they gone a little too far? What kind of credibility could they have expected to achieve in the eyes of the Jewish people by making such a claim? How could the calf, a new creation, be responsible for what happened in the past?

The answer lies in what the golden calf represented. Traditionally, the calf represents frolicsomeness, a childish, carefree attitude towards life. It was this image that was cast in gold, the symbol of eternity, suggesting a carefree lifestyle free of any responsibility to any master other than ourselves ... forever.

This was the Erev Rav's message: "Israel! Why did you leave Egypt, and the terrible slavery you suffered there? To become slaves again? To take upon yourselves another yoke of suffering? No! You left Egypt to become free men ... That is what took you out of Egypt, the dream of a carefree lifestyle ... to become masters of your own destinies!"

This is why Moshe had no choice but to break the Luchos (Tablets), about which the rabbis wrote:

The Tablets were the work of G-d and the writing was that of G-d engraved (charus) on the Tablets. Don't read charus (engraved), but cheirus (freedom), for there is no one freer than one who studies the Torah. (Pirke Avos, 6:2)
The message of the Luchos was that freedom lies not in the rejection of moral responsibility, but in the acceptance of it. We were redeemed from Egypt to accept the Torah, and all of its contents, including the most minute detail. It was upon this premise that we rode to freedom from Egyptian immorality, and from a people compared to the frolicsome calf.

The Parah Aduma comes to purify us of the Egyptian attitude towards life, which, in the eyes of the Torah represents spiritual death. To begin with, it is a statute, not an idea that can be dissected and understood "scientifically" with the logic of man. Therefore, observance of the Parah Aduma demands obedience to a Higher Knowledge, loving acceptance of the Divine Will.

As well, the Red Heifer teaches us to take responsibility for the problems we create, so that we can resolve them, thereby improving ourselves and the world around us. It also tells us that when things go wrong in life, they can often be traced back to causes we ourselves created. Even on the level that we have difficulty perceiving, life in this world is always a matter of causes we create, and the effects they have been Divinely-ordained to have.

In advance of Pesach, the holiday that celebrates more than just our national freedom, we need to hear this message. We need to be reminded that freedom lies not in being lax in the observance of mitzvos, but in being zealous to perform them. Our bodies may not enjoy hearing receiving this little memorandum, but it is the key that unlocks the door to free the Jewish spirit, and to achieve true and lasting freedom.

It lends a whole different meaning to being "well-red."

Have a great Shabbos,
Pinchas Winston

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