Minding The Shor*
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
* A "shor" is the Hebrew word for a bull.
As mentioned last week, Sefer VaYikrah deals a lot with sacrifices,
most of which include animal sacrifices. Not all Torah concepts seem foreign
to our generation-but of those that do, animal sacrifices have got to be up
there with the likes of the Red Heifer, which was used as part of the
spiritual purification process necessary after coming into contact with the
dead and related things. Living in a society that has never witnessed Temple
life, and being part of a generation that can even value its pets more than
its fellow human beings, the thought of killing an animal to be burned on an
altar to an abstract G-d, seems, to many, to be an abhorrent thing to do.
Imagine someone who has never witnessed farming. Having grown up in
the city, he always assumed that Corn Flakes grew on the shelves of the
supermarket. As it happened to be, one day he found himself traveling along
a country road when he spied a beautiful spread of grassy land. In fact, the
land was so beautiful that he decided to get out of the car and take in the
scenery and fresh country air in for a while.
After a few blissful moments, he hears from a distance the hum of
machinery. Minutes pass, and the hum becomes a buzz, until finally, the buzz
itself becomes the unmistakable sound of a tractor, which is now heading for
the man across that beautiful piece of pasture land. The man is in shock!
"Who would get on a piece of twentieth century machinery and
deliberately, and maliciously, tear up a gorgeous piece of ol' Mother Earth?!" the man thought to
In fact, so outraged was the man that he hurdled over the wood
fence and ran out to the farmer yelling, "Stop! You can't do that! Stop! You
can't do that!"
The farming, seeing the city slicker waving his hands in excitement
removes the cotton from his ears and says, "Say what?"
While trying to catch his breath, the city fellow, in between
breaths, asks the farmer,
"Why ..." puff ... puff ... "Why would you ..." puff ... puff ...
"want to destroy this beautiful piece of land?"
The farmer, more confused than he's ever been, takes off his hat and
scratches his head. Then he sizes up the man before him, and, realizing what
the man's trying to say, gets off his tractor, and begins to explain the
ABC's of farming and food production.
"You see," said the farmer, "first we have to dig up the land to
prepare it for the seeds. Without the seeds, aint no food gonna' grow from ol' terra firma. Digging
up the ground may look bad, but its got to be if you want to have food for you and your loved ones
... Then we ..."
And so on.
After a good hour of talk, the city man, in awe of the process and
the farmer who works so hard for the food of others, thanks the farmer for
enlightening him, and goes along his merry way, a changed person. "So Corn
Flakes doesn't grow on the shelf of the supermarket after all ..." he muses
Thus it is with us. We look on and see an animal being slaughtered
in the Torah, and lacking a sophisticated understanding of G-d and how He
runs his world, we see a beautiful animal being destroyed. What waste! it
seems to us.
However, for the sake of free will, G-d's greatest gift to mankind,
and for the sake of keeping the physical world functioning so that we can
merit to use our free will, animal sacrifices were a necessary component of
every day spiritual life. In fact, the Talmud states that, had it not been
for the sacrifices, the world would have ceased to exist (Megillah 31b). We
may take the spiritual world for granted, like the city dweller who
overlooked the process of making food, but that does not negate its
existence, or our responsibility to "feed" it to keep it, and ourselves, for
that matter, alive and well.
To begin the discussion, let's agree that little else shows our
concern for something than our willingness to sacrifice for it. Society
creates many heroes, but the real hero in any thinking society is the person
who sacrifices for the sake of a moral cause. In an extreme case, like
during wartime, the sacrifice may even be of one's life. Self-sacrifice is
the ultimate statement one can make about the value of something they care
The ultimate moral cause in the universe is the Ultimate Moral
Cause-G-d Himself. Since we've known Him, serving Him and upholding His
values has always required some amount of sacrifice, either of time and, or
of creature comfort. And sometimes, following His path has resulted in the
supreme sacrifice-of life itself.
But, as the Talmud teaches us, for the most part, G-d would prefer
that we LIVE for Him rather than DIE for Him (Phew!), which is often harder
to do (Oh...). For, dying for something is a one-time thing; once a person
has died for the cause, though the cause may go on, he does not. However,
living for something means constantly pushing oneself to live up to his or
her commitment, which can become very tiring, both mentally and physically.
Take prayer, for example. For those who pray a couple times a day,
every day, year after year, it can become very difficult to stand in prayer
with a renewed sense of devotion and vigor, each time. For this reason,
prayer, like many other mitzvos, becomes ritualistic and habitual. This is
service of G-d? This is an expression of love and commitment to the Ultimate
In the words of David Hamelech, the "sacrifice of God is a broken
spirit." (Tehillim 51:19)
However, little us wakes us up to the reality and value of life
better, and faster, than the sight of blood. Almost instinctively, from the
earliest age, the sight of blood, from anything, signifies life and leaves
us with a sense of vulnerability. Prayer may have replaced the sacrifices of
the Temple days, but let's face it, it is far less dramatic to stand in a
minyan set to pray than it is to stand in the Temple Courtyard and witness
the ritual slaughter of a living animal. And, it is our sensitivity to life,
to its value and its opportunities for spiritual growth, that justify the
world's existence, without which could exist.
Sacrifices made living for G-d easier to do on a daily basis.
Aside from this, every detail of each sacrifice was custom-designed
by G-d to have a specific effect, not just on our consciousnesses, but on
the spiritual world itself. Different parts of the process corresponded to
different aspects of the spiritual and physical world, and by completing
each act as commanded, a rectification of creation occurred that was vital
to bring the world to its ultimate completion, whether we could detect this
This is no different than the Red Heifer I referred to at the
beginning of this page. As mentioned previously, the Red Heifer is a
"chok," a statute, the kind of mitzvah whose effect is beyond human
comprehension. Had the Torah not prescribed the procedure for the Red
Heifer as a way to purify ourselves from spiritual defilement, we would not
have thought to implement such a procedure on our own.
To date, there have only been nine such red heifers (heifers that
are completely red, with the exception of, at most, two hairs). The tenth
red heifer will only come during the time of Moshiach, so that the nation
can become purified from its existing state of spiritual defilement. (At the
time of writing this page, I heard a rumor that a red heifer was born about
six months ago, but I have yet to confirm this. I do know that, for some
years now people have tried without success to breed one. If one has in fact
since been born, then ...) The actual preparatory process of the Red Heifer
is described in detail in BaMidbar (19:1).
The Talmud states that, in the merit of Avraham referring to
himself as "dust and ashes" (Bereishis 18:27), we received the mitzvah of
the ashes of the Red Heifer (Sota 17a). What connection, though, is there
between Avraham's humility before G-d, and the ashes of the Red Heifer? The
answer to this question is simple, but profound.
Of all the things man must subjugate to the will of G-d, the most
difficult one is his own mind. G-d's greatest gift to man can also be man's
greatest curse, when used to rationalize his own superiority, and worse,
when used against G-d. And nothing is more offensive to a creator than to be
usurped by his own creation, with the very ability the creator gave to it,
as a gift!
Though G-d had invited Avraham in to debate the merit of saving or
destroying S'dom and Amorah, which took a superlative mind to do, Avraham
still managed to keep in mind that ultimately, it is G-d's will that must
prevail; ultimately, there is a level of wisdom that even the human mind, no
matter how great and mysterious it may be, cannot ever fathom. Thus, in a
real sense, the question of whether or not destroy S'dom was not a debate
about S'dom's merit to survive, but about Avraham's willingness to subjugate
his mind and genius to the will of G-d. For having succeeded in doing so,
Avraham's descendants were rewarded with the ultimate symbol of such
Red Heifer = Para Aduma
(Hebrew) = Paradox.
Nothing tests our belief in G-d's wisdom than a paradox.
Perhaps, then, one of the reasons we read Parashas Parah as the
special maftir this week in advance of Pesach is not just because the Jewish
people had to be sprinkled with its waters first before sacrificing the
Pesach Offering. For, Pesach is about a renewal of our sense of mission; it
is a time to recall for what purpose G-d took us out of Egyptian bondage.
May this can help to explain a mysterious connection between the
word Paroah, whose root is poray-ah (peh-reish-ayin), and the word dust
(ah-far: ayin-peh-reish), which symbolized Avraham's humility before G-d.
After all, wasn't it Paroah who arrogantly asked Moshe, "Who is G-d?" while
it was Avraham who humbly asked G-d, "Who am I?"
This is the time of year to cleanse ourselves of "chometz," of all
the facades we create for ourselves in order to appear more competent than
we might actually be. Purim was the first stage in removing the masks.
Pesach is the next stage in removing them once and for all. Within humility,
especially intellectual humility, is freedom from Paroah and intellectual
arrogance. Our inability to understand G-d and the spiritual world through
which He operates does not imply that it is faulty, or that it doesn't
exist. It implies that, as great as human intelligence may be, it has its
limitations. And where human thought leaves off, Divine intelligence only
Perhaps this is why the Beis Levi has written that the Red Heifer
will be especially central in the ending of the fourth and final exile, the
Roman Exile, the exile of the RED Edom. It is Eisav who used his mind to
overcome the natural world, to subjugate it and everything else in it to his
will, while at the same time, throwing off any obligation to Heaven. It was
his grandson, Amalek, the ancestor of Haman, who used his mind to "disprove"
the existence of G-d.
The Red Heifer in particular, and sacrifices in general, remind us
that our minds are limited. Knowing THIS is the beginning of entering into
the world of Pesach. Living with THIS is what it means to be a true
descendant of Avraham, a genius of a man whose own humility knew no bounds.
But best of all, being real with this is the beginning of unlocking
the mysteries of Heaven, for, as King David wrote, "The mysteries of G-d to
those who fear Him" (Tehillim 25:14).
Have a great Shabbos, and happy Pesach cleaning.
P.S. Ever wonder why we give so much chometz to people so soon before
Pesach in the form Mishloach Manos? Me too. Next year, why not give a gift
certificate to a kosher for Passover matzah factory ... or at least kosher
for Passover macaroons? That way, you won't have to panic as your children
run through the house eating chocolate wafers that fragment into more
chometz pieces than fine crystal does on a stone floor! Perhaps when
Moshiach explains the Red Heifer to us, he'll also answer the riddle about
chometz Mishloach Manos too. P.W.