Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Leap of Faith
This week's sidrah, Chukas, begins with the mitzvah of the Parah
Adumah (Red Heifer). The cow slaughtered as the Red Heifer had to
be so completely red that even two hairs of another colour
disqualified it (Rashi). Understandably, such a cow is an exceptional
rarity. When needed, a Parah Adumah could command exorbitant
The Gemara tells a fascinating story. (One version of this story is
found in Talmud Bavli, Kiddushin 31a. The version I quote here is
from Talmud Yerushalmi, Peah Chapter 1.) The Choshen/Breastplate
worn by the Kohen Gadol (High Priest - see parshas Tetzaveh,
Shemos/Exodus ch. 28) held twelve precious stones, one for each of
the twelve tribes of Israel. Once, the Yashphe stone of the tribe of
Benyamin fell out and was lost. The sages immediately set out to find
a replacement, and were told that just such a stone could be found
by a gentile, Damah ben (son of) Nesinah. They approached Damah,
and asked if he would be willing to sell them the jewel. Yes, he
replied, he would, of course for an agreeable price. Eventually they
settled on a price of 100 dinar.
When he went to get the stone, however, Damah found that the key
to the chest containing the stone was in the hands of his father
(Nesinah) who happened to be fast asleep. (Others say he had fallen
asleep with his feet on top of the chest.) Damah returned to the
sages, and told them that although he certainly had the jewel, he
could not give it to them presently. The sages assumed he was
having second feelings about the price, and offered him more money
for the stone. Eventually, the bid escalated to 1,000 dinar. Just then,
Damah heard his father awake. He went and brought them the stone.
The sages, elated that their mission was finally accomplished, began
to count the 1,000 dinar that had been their final offer. Damah
refused. What now, they wondered, more money? "No," Damah told
them. "Do you imagine I will 'sell' the honour of my father, because
of whom I could not until now bring you the stone, for some
coinage?! I refuse to take more than the original 100 dinar!"
How did Hashem (G-d) repay Damah? The Gemara relates that the
very same night, a Parah Adumah was born to him. The Jews came
and paid him for it the cow's weight in gold.
Nothing happens by chance. Why was this righteous gentile, who was
so meticulous in the mitzvah of kibbud av (honouring one's father),
rewarded by being given a Parah Adumah?
There are many amazing points about this story. There is the fact that
he refused to wake his father, no matter what the circumstances. Also
amazing is that it seems he refused to reveal to the sages the true
reason for not bringing the stone (they assumed he wanted more
money); it seems that out of humility he didn't want to reveal his true
motive. Then there is the remarkable point that he would not take the
final bid, which was ten times that of the original, refusing to sell his
mitzvah for monetary gain.
The mitzvos of the Torah are often divided into two main categories;
chukim and mishpatim. Mishpatim are those mitzvos which appeal
to our sense of logic and morality: Don't kill; don't steal; honour your
father and mother. Chukim are mitzvos that have no direct
connection with human character and morality - they are simply laws
which G-d commands us to obey. Examples of chukim are: Laws of
kashrus (kosher foods); tzitzis (fringes); tefilin.
Parah Adumah is the ultimate chok (singular of chukim). Its laws defy
all logic. The ashes of the Parah Adumah are used to purify one who
has become tamei (ritually impure), yet a person who is not ritually
impure who comes in contact with its ashes is rendered impure!
Honouring one's father and mother is a mishpat: They gave you life,
sustained and raised you, so you must honour them.
Yet the lines of division between chukim and mishpatim are not
always so clear. Sometimes a mishpat can become a chok. For
instance, it is forbidden to kill someone even to release him from the
excruciating pain of a terminal illness, and even if he asks for it.
Although this may not appeal to our sense of logic, which tells us
there is a point where death is in fact preferable to life, still the Torah
mandate of not 'killing' does not sway. We must accept this out of
faith, nonwithstanding our own understanding or lack of it.
Damah ben Nesinah took the mitzvah of kibbud av to great
extremes. Logically, how terrible is it to wake one's father momentarily
in order to make a very profitable sale? He could easily have reasoned
that his father would have preferred to have been woken in such a
case, rather than to have his son lose the sale. And would it really
have been wrong to take the higher price? Logically; no, there is
nothing wrong with taking advantage of circumstances which had
enabled him to command a higher price for the rare stone he
Yet Damah (who could well serve as an example to many of us) did
not stop performing the mishpat of kibbud av just because it had
ceased to be logical. He elevated the mitzvah to a higher level, to
that of chok. Even when it made no sense, he took a leap of faith
and unswervingly refused to sway from honouring his father in even
the slightest way. Many would have criticised Damah. The words
extremist and fanatic come to mind.
It appears though, that this was not how G-d viewed the situation.
Hashem ordained that the very same night a Parah Adumah be born
to Damah. Parah Adumah, the ultimate chok, the mitzvah regarding
which, as Rashi says, the nations of the world mock Israel due to its
illogical laws. Damah had elevated kibud av to becoming a chok. He
defied all logic and reason. So he received his reward from a mitzvah
whose very existence defies logic and reason.
Often, keeping the Torah's 613 mitzvos feels logical and moral. At
times, however, it can become confusing and irrational. From Damah
ben Nesinah we learn to take a leap of faith, and do what is right
whether we understand it or not, because it is the will of Hashem.
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.