Volume 3 Issue 41
by Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
The laws of the parah adumah, the red heifer, have enraptured mortals since
the day it was commanded. There was no reason or rationale given for it.
The nations of the world, baffled by it, mocked our observance of it. Even
King Solomon, the wisest of men, claimed to be stupefied by its reasoning.
And Moshe was the only mortal that understood the essence of its every nuance.
Its laws are complex, its symbolism mysterious, and the logic of its
repercussions quite enigmatic. The red heifer's ashes purify those who have
become tamei (impure), yet the administrating Kohen who was tahor (pure)
becomes tamei! There is no logic behind that occurrence; yet that is the
law. So sacred was the red heifer that Moshe and Aaron sacrificed, that it
ashes were saved from generation to generation. Each additional red-heifer
offering was added to the remnants of the previous, so that the new ashes
would mix with the vestigial ashes of Moshe's original heifer. Hundreds of
generations and thousands of Kohanim and Israelites who performed the
mitzvah of parah adumah believed with unquestioning faith in the law's
ritual divinity and power.
I have one simple question. Why were these complex, hidden, and very
spiritual laws placed smack in the middle of the Book of Bamidbar? The
enigmatical laws of purity and impurity are almost entirely relegated to
Sefer VaYikra (Leviticus). That sefer discusses sacrificial offerings. It
also details a host of physio-spiritual maladies, among them, the laws of
tzora'as, zav, zavah, nidah, and so forth. Shouldn't the mystical
requirements of the Parah Adumah join its counterparts together with the
laws of the Kohanim? Why is it placed in the Book that recounts the stories
of human folly -the malicious uprising of Korach, the miscalculations of the
spies, the unfaithfulness of the sotah, the complaints against the heavenly
fare of manna? What significance does the juxtaposition of these seemingly
unexplainable rituals, obviously not congruent with mortal logic doing with
the tales of error and miscalculation?
One evening during World War II, Senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee could
not sleep. As chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, he could not
understand why he should the administration was requesting some
$2,000,000,000 towards certain unusual scientific research.
He called Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and began to shout. "Do you
expect me to sanction this tremendous appropriation without any idea as to
where it is going!"
Stimson kept quiet. He pondered and hesitated, then he asked, "Can you keep
a secret?" After McKellar assured him that he could, Stimson whispered, "We
are about to split the atom."
McKellar exploded. "Are you crazy? This is a war! We have men out there!
We need guns! We need planes! We need ammunition! And you guys are
fooling around with some hocus pocus -- splitting atoms!"
It was only months later that McKellar, along with the entire world learned
the power of this seemingly incomprehensible and esoteric exercise.
Perhaps there is no better place to expound the laws of parah adumah than in
the middle of Sefer Bamidbar. For it is this Torah section that discusses a
generation that thinks they are able to calculate and define everything. It
tells of spies who return from Canaan and exclaim that according to their
calculations there is no logical way that Israel will conquer the land. It
tells of Korach, who complained that according to his calculations he should
be the prince of the tribe of Levi. Its Midrash tells of Korach gathering
250 men and ranting that according to his logic a mezuzah is unnecessary in
a room filled with sacred books. It talks about false leaders who would be
satisfied if only the spirit of the law is fulfilled, even if the letter of
the law is not. Bamidbar even contains the story of Miriam, who, according
to her reasoning, spoke ill of her brother Moshe. It discusses Jews who
wanted meat rather than manna.
When humans make mortal calculations to redefine Torah law, there is no
better time and place to talk about red heifers and the complex and esoteric
laws thereof. The red cow and its laws represent the total omnipotence of
Hashem, be it spirit, in logic, or in mechanics. It exclaims that that
though we may search for rhyme and reason of Torah, we still must observe
the mitzvos He commanded, regardless if we understand them. For there will
always be some aspect that may only appear to us as mysterious as hocus
pocus. Yet with uncalculating faith we must realize that there is great
method to the many aspects we cannot deem mortal. In that manner we shall
merit to be totally committed to Hashem's Torah, and not our mortal vision
Mordechai Kamenetzky - Yeshiva of South Shore
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Associate Dean of the
Yeshiva of South Shore.
Drasha is the e-mail edition of FaxHomily, a weekly torah facsimile on the weekly portion
which is sponsored by The Henry and Myrtle Hirsch Foundation