From Insights and Inspirations
Published by the Ra’anana Community Kollel
Ra’anana Community Kollel
The Cow and the Calf
Rabbi Binyomin Lipson
In the beginning of this week’s parshah we read in great detail about the mitzvah of the parah adumah, the mysterious procedure which was used by Jews living in the Temple era to cleanse themselves of the spiritual impurity resulting from contact with the dead. As the Torah forbids a person who is spiritually impure to enter the Temple or perform certain mitzvot, this mitzvah of the parah adumah was an essential part of Jewish life which we will only merit to perform with the arrival of our final redemption and the reconstruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.
There are many, many questions which have been asked concerning this mitzvah in particular which the Torah itself refers to as the “ultimate decree” which despite our bewilderment of how and why it actually works we are fully expected to safeguard no less than the other mitzvot of the Torah. Perhaps on the most basic level we must ask, of all the possible methods that could have been utilized for the purification of the living from the contamination of the dead why was this particular one selected?
In addressing this question, Rashi explains that the mitzvah of the parah adumah serves primarily as an atonement for the transgression of the golden calf. Just as a mother of a toddler is asked to come and clean up her child’s mess, so to does the mitzvah of parah adumah which is performed with the mother cow atone for the transgression which the Jewish people committed with her child, the golden calf. But what exactly is the “mess” which was made by the calf that the mother cow serves to clean up?
The Talmud explains that at the time when the Jewish people received the Torah they were purified to such a great extent that the Angel of Death could no longer exert any influence over them. However, continues the Talmud, when the Jewish people subsequently committed the transgression of the golden calf, they returned to their original status as mere mortals with a susceptibility to death and its resulting impurity. Indeed, it would seem that this is the “mess” which the mitzvah of the parah adumah comes to correct.
There is however, yet another aspect of the transgression of the golden calf which the mitzvah of the parah adumah comes to rectify. No doubt, the transgression of the golden calf is quite a puzzling one. How can it be that the Jewish people so soon after witnessing the miracles of the exodus from Egypt and receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai could be capable of outright idol worship? The Beis Halevi explains that in truth, the actual transgression was something far more sublime than it appears on the surface. Moshe had been the leader of the Jewish people from the time that the plagues first began in Egypt, and, with the aid of prophesy, served as an intermediary through which the will of Hashem was brought to verbal expression. Therefore, when the Jewish people were faced with the possibility that Moshe, the one person who could serve as the living link between the nation and Hashem Himself, was no longer with them, they immediately set out to secure a replacement; another vehicle by way of which the presence of Hashem could dwell amongst them. It was never intended that this replacement would come to serve as a deity in its own right, but rather, to fulfill the role that had until that point been occupied by Moshe the task of maintaining the connection between the Jewish people and their Father in Heaven.
The essence of their mistake lay in the fact that no matter how lofty one’s intentions and his understanding of the spiritual realities of creation, the Torah remains our sole guide as to how to serve our Creator and foster holiness amongst the community of Israel. “Man’s heart is filled with many thoughts, but only the advice of Hashem will endure.” Many people have unique and creative ideas of how to make their lives more spiritual and come closer to G-d, but ultimately, only the ways which have been taught to us by the Creator Himself will achieve this goal. Thus, the sin of the golden calf was not the fact that the Jewish people sought a replacement for Moshe to maintain their connection with Hashem, but rather, the fact that this attempt came from their own initiative and was pursued with mere human intellect.
With this understanding of the sin of the golden calf, we gain yet a deeper understanding of the teaching that the mitzvah of the parah adumah serves as its atonement. After making the mistake of relying on their own intellect to invent a new method of divine service, enter - parah adumah which has no apparent explanation and does not lend itself to human understanding. By keeping all of the details this mysterious mitzvah we show that we have corrected the mistaken assumptions of the transgression of the golden calf and have dedicated ourselves fully to adhering to Hashem’s commands without inserting the reasoning of human intellect into our divine service.