Inspired by Parasha U’Pishra by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
Can I just be religious for a minute? There are a lot of mitzvos that we understand, that we can relate to, that give us that warm and fuzzy “Judaism” feeling, but parah adumah is not one of them. I can feel 100% confident making that statement because King Solomon, Shlomo HaMelech, famously known as “the wisest of all men”, said more or less the same thing: “I said I will become wise, but it is beyond me.” (Koheles-Ecclesiastes 7:23) Our sages explain that this refers to parah adumah.
Don’t get me wrong – there are commentaries on the concept of parah adumah so brilliant that they make the entire issue seem like child’s play. It isn’t like you’re ever going to find Jews with nothing to say. (Things haven’t gone that far…)
But at the heart of the concept of parah adumah lies an intrinsic, insoluble paradox that not even the most skillful Talmudic thumb-swinging can get around: sprinkling the ashes of the parah adumah (red heifer) makes the tameh become tahor and the tahor become tameh. (Look, I warned you that I was about to sound religious…)
The Parah Adumah Paradox
On a more serious note, what would happen was this. A man would come into contact with a corpse. Maybe he attended a funeral, visited a hospital, or found a large, dead animal in the middle of the road. One way or another, his close proximity to death made him tameh.
For one thing, coming into contact with death muddied his subconscious psychological relationship with the concept of an eternal, undying G-d and, by extension, an eternal, undying human soul. But more importantly, regardless of his psychological state, coming into contact with death changed him on a spiritual level. His ability to spiritually connect with G-d and with other people became, to a certain extent, fundamentally blocked.
To return to a state of tahara, the man would travel to the Beis HaMikdash (temple) and undergo various procedures to remove his spiritual blockage. Sprinkling a substance made of the ashes of the parah adumah was an intrinsic part of these procedures. Contact with this substance catalyzed a spiritual change within him, leaving him free to once again participate fully in his relationship with G-d and others.
The unique substance was created by mixing ashes of the parah adumah with water. The kohen (priest) had to be in a state of tahara to prepare the mixture. However, the substance left the kohen and any other previously tahor person tameh by his contact with it. The tahor person’s spiritual connection became blocked by his contact with the ashes of the parah adumah.
How could the same substance effect people in such fundamentally contradictory ways?
Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakai told his students, “By your lives! The [contact with] death is not what causes tumah and the heifer is not what causes tahara and the water is not what causes tahara either. Rather, the Holy One, Blessed is He, said, ‘A law have I legislated, a decree have I decreed. You have no ability to breach my decree, as it says [in the parasha regarding parah adumah], ‘This is the decree of the Torah…’’” (Midrash Tanchuma on Parashas Chukas)
What was Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai saying? I mean, I’m religious. I know that if I am in close proximity to death, I’m tameh, end of story. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. That’s just the way the cookie crumbles. It sure seems like death causes tumah.
Likewise, as a frummeh yid, I know that were there were a Beis HaMikdash standing today, if I showed up and got sprinkled by the ashes of a cow with not a single hair on its bovine form colored anything but hot ginger, I would be tahor. And that would have implications for my position vis-à-vis Jewish law. Things would be permitted that were previously forbidden. Spiritual consequences would kaleidoscope around me to form a completely different configuration, and those consequences would last for eternity.
The parah adumah is an inexorable tahara-machine. Right? (Except for that pesky odd fact that it leaves some other people tameh…)
You see, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai was diving in way deeper than a cookie-cutter frumkeit would have us go. He was warning his students, and the Jewish People for all generations, that believing in Torah isn’t good enough. You also have to believe in G-d.
Rabbi ben Zakai was describing a type of idolatry, an idolatry particular to Torah-observant Jews. Today it’s the segulos. Yesteryear it was the kameyos. In the midbar it was the golden calf. Don’t think that the dor deiah, the generation that personally received the Torah, weren’t frum. The calf was one of the metaphoric animals to appear on the merkava, the divine chariot prophetically described by Yechezkel! They knew what they were doing! They were trying to tap into great things.
And they were completely missing the point. But completely.
Would you put me in cherem (excommunicate me) if I told you that segulos don’t work? What if I said that mitzvos don’t work? I’d really be in trouble then. But Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai said it for me.
It isn’t segulos or mitzvos that effect our world, it is G-d Himself. He decided that He wants us to do things a certain way. When we do, consequences roll out the red carpet in our favor. Likewise He decided that He wants us to avoid certain behaviors. As such, when we successfully avoid them, light goes out from a secret place to illuminate the entirety of creation. This includes things we understand, like avoiding gossip and anger. It also includes things we don’t understand, like avoiding shatnez. And the difference is? Only in our minds.
Now, I am no one to minimize the chashivus (honorable stature) of the human mind. (Come on, I’m Jewish. We don’t go bragging about “my son, the high school dropout”.) Let me also assure you that segulos certainly have their legitimate place in Judaic practice. But when we forget the message of parah adumah, we forget Judaism. Because we forget G-d.
Said Rav Yochanan ben Zakai, there are no magical, mystical forces controlling our destinies. The spooky stuff is all just a front. Spiritual reality – consequences that take place in response to particular choices – runs the way it does only because G-d said so. And the way spiritual reality effects us depends on our relationship with Him. The role we play in the great drama of the world is predetermined by nothing but our own choices vis-à-vis the Almighty. It is we who determine our destiny by the degree of our moral rectitude.
Neither water nor ashes create tahara in and of themselves. It is our relationship with G-d expressed through our fulfillment of His mitzvah that creates tahara.
It’s time to drop the idols and look at the Source.
The Only Game in Town
When you realize that keeping Torah is about serving G-d, the world begins to look a lot different. You begin to get a lot less nervous and a lot more interested. A lot less thoughtlessly obsessed and a lot more emotionally involved. Suddenly, the point of focus shifts. It no longer is about what I want. It’s about what He wants, because, hey, He’s real and He’s here! In fact, He’s the only thing here that matters.
“Reality”, whether physical reality or spiritual reality, can begin to feel a bit bludgeoning. It can get heavy, all that worrying about toeing the line and getting it right for the sake of impersonal, invisible forces. They don’t know you, they don’t care about you, and they will zap you if you step on their spiritual toes. Yikes! (This would be much funnier if it weren’t for the enormous amount of people actually living this way. Then it just gets depressing.)
When you quit worshipping the fear of almighty consequences – “If I do this, I’ll get that” – and start worshipping the Almighty Himself, keeping the Torah stops being a burden and becomes a dance. Suddenly you are motivated by love instead of by the victim mentality. When you are performing mitzvos not because you will suffer if you don’t but because, hey, my Beloved wants this, you’re tapping into a source of energy and joy that has no end.
It remains true that we suffer when we ignore spiritual reality. Failing to perform mitzvos or, even worse, actually performing aveiros, leads to terrible consequences for ourselves and the entire world. But does G-d allegorically sigh when He has to serve us with negative consequences? He doesn’t want us to mistake the messenger for the message, yet how else can He stop us from banging our heads against the wall? We’re bleeding in our stubborn stupidity and He has to send forceful measures to wake us up and make us change. Nonetheless, it is a double edged sword.
Some of us encounter challenging circumstances and turn to segulos and mindless bracha-collecting as though the world is a pinball machine and whoever gets the most “spiritual” toys wins. This mindset is so common today that there is an entire advertising industry devoted to it. Many of us buy in hook, line and sinker. No need to work on improving our character. No need for genuine thought and introspection. No need for real, honest prayer. Ha! I’ve got my segula and fifteen gedolim (great rabbis) davening for me. Who needs to improve their character or actually talk to G-d when they’ve got all that?
It’s a sickness.
Parah adumah is about freedom, the freedom from enslavement to a belief in any power other than the Almighty Himself. He alone determines whether the ashes of the parah adumah bring tahara or tumah. He alone determines whether a segula will work or not. He alone determines which mitzvos He wants us to do.
He alone determines everything. Whether we realize it or not, our relationship with Him is the only game in town. Let us pray to remember that.