Parshas Parah: The Eternal Lesson of the “Red Heifer”

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By Rabbi Naftoly Bier

Rav Shlomo Breuer זצ”ל, the son-in-law of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch and disciple of the Ktav Sofer, offers a beautiful, profound and illuminating discourse on the profound lesson of the mitzvah of the פרה אדומה, the Red heifer. The mitzvah is perplexing in the manner it affects those who are involved with its preparation and the process of enabling one who is impure – spiritually defiled, to become “pure” once again, while those who are initially spiritually pure become impure.

The introduction by the Divine word of the פרה אדומה institution with the words זאת חקת התורה,and its presentation as a basic law of Torah, project its high significance for the entire law of G-d. This institution is basic for the entire Torah.

In the view of our Midrash-sages, this institution is initially based on the following thought: Who causes pure to emerge from the impure? Is it not the Only One who caused Abraham to descend from Terach, Hizkiah from an Achaz, Yoshiyah from an Ammon, Mordecai from a Shimei, Israel from the nations? Who causes the future world to emerge from this world? Who performs and directs all this? Is it not He, who is the Only One in the world?

Let us begin by reviewing the terminological significance of the words, חקת התורה. With חוקים the Sages include those laws, the motives and purpose of which are beyond human understanding and which result exclusively from the dictate of the Divine Will.

The שטן, Satan is exclusively concerned with the avowed task of hindering us from fulfilling the Mitzvos. He is not interested in the reasons. He condemns every Mitzvah from the outset, especially if it is one the purpose of which lies below the surface. He confronts it with the mocking question: “What kind of a Mitzvah is this?” As justified and understandable as these questions are, the answers which G-d places in our mouth are as difficult: גזירה היא לפני וכו – it is this absolute and incomprehensible dictate of the Divine Will against which the שטן and the non-Jewish world rebel. What qualifies this answer to serve as a rebuff to their attack?

This reply becomes clear if we consider that Jewish truth offers us the same answer when our very being is shaken by heavy, often incomprehensible blows of fate: גזירה היא מלפני א”א ראשי להרהר אחריה – it is G-d’s decision, beyond human understanding, against which we cannot rebel, but which we must accept in joyous devotion.

Iyov exclaims in his infinite pain: “The good we receive from G-d, and we should not be ready to accept also evil from Him?” (2:6). The טהור מטמא aspect of the פ”א institution is חקת התורה; exclusively a part of Torah. For unlike the חוקי שמים וארץ – the majestic Divine laws of nature, which are governed by the all-powerful law of causality where cause and effect lie in the same realm and do not clash as contrasts, the Divine law of Torah embodies also that which is miraculous, such as טהור מטמא, that the impure gives birth to the pure.

There is a profound thought expressed at our Sages, which seems puzzling. “And חוה, Eve called her third son שת, Shes, for Hashem has sent me “another” seed in place of הבל, Abel, that קין, Cain, killed. The word “another” seems superfluous. חז”ל explain she was looking towards the Moshiach and the Davidic dynasty, which originated from “another place”; namely the Moabite nation, a non-Jewish nation. רות, Rus, a Moabite, was the ancestress of Dovid HaMelech, King David.

She also uses the terminology “seed”. Why? She now views in this child a seed which G-d had set for her, but which requires the faithful care of a gardener if it is to bloom into the “human plant” which is the object of our longing. זרע is every human being who is exposed to decay, not only physically but morally and intellectually, if he does not have the necessary care. Yet even the “seed” of unworthy parents may develop into the glorious flower of man, provided he is imbued with the ennobling and purifying power of Torah. 

It is this phenomenon which demonstrates our Torah’s miraculous strength. רות המאבית, overcome with love for Torah, becomes the ancestral mother of the Davidic dynasty, the מלך המשיח! Hereby, Chava charts the course of education through which the Jewish people, even from זרע שבא ממקום אחר, will ultimately find its מלך המשיח. 

The success of Torah in winning זרע ממקום אחר to become bearers of its truth proclaims its stamp of immortality כי לא תשכח מפי זרעו, – “it will not be forgotten from the mouth of its seed,” pronounces the comforting and guiding word, which does not let us despair even in times of saddest decay. The estrangement may progress in frighten­ing degree; wide circles may fall prey to the crassest behavior; we need not tremble for the future of Torah. It will always succeed, for the Torah harbors a mystical, mysterious potency, which causes the טהור to emerge from טומאה. Whole generations fade away in complete estrangement from G-d – and here blossoms an Abraham from Terah!

But the phenomenon of the פרה אדומה, the Red Heifer, that there is a constant interchange of those pure becoming defiled, and those defiled becoming pure doesn’t apply the “ashes” themselves. It is a symbol of the Divine potency of Torah that is immutable and a manifestation of its miraculous potency to “purify all”.

From the two daughters of Lot, the ancestral mothers of Moab and Ammon, ultimately came Ruth and our King David! If it is possible that from the טומאה surrounding Sodom and Amorah that such a blossom emerges, it is the greatest conceivable essence of the Divine cause.

This very fact demonstrates the miraculous power of Torah. Fittingly our Sages thus present to us the מגילת רות on the day of מתן תורה: it is here that the זאת חוקת התורה proves the inherent potency of Torah in all its dimensions. From it we may look forward, in hope and confidence, for all time to come, to the salvation of our people and of all mankind.

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