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Vol. 8 # 36 JN 28-29, '96: Parshas Chukas and Balak (In Eretz Yisrael Parshas Balak)

Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein  

Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer

           There are many mysterious statutes in the Torah, but the epitome of the intangible decree is the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer. Described as a purification process from contamination with the dead, the procedure purifies those who are impure, yet renders impure those involved who where initially pure!

           Some of the other mysteries: It is performed outside of the camp,  although all sacrifices must be brought only from within the camp. A  mysterious concoction of ceder wood, hyssop and crimson wool are thrown into  the fire where the animal is burned. The procedure also involves the kohein  sprinkling blood towards the sanctuary, and the impure person must be  sprinkled with a mixture of liquid and ashes of the heifer on the third and  seventh day.

           Many say that the real mystery is life and death, and the concept of  the impurity of the dead.

One Explanation: The Richness of the Soul

           The Ohr Hachayim explained that the contamination of the dead only concerns Israel. It is comparable to two containers, one filled with filth, the other with honey. When emptied and brought outside, only the container of honey attracts swarms of flies. The other attracts some flies, but not nearly as many as the honey. Similarly, after Israel received the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they attracted everything, just as honey draws flies. After the soul, the source of sanctity, departs, the empty vessel of the body is taken over with the forces of contamination. This contamination is only due to traces of the rich sanctity of the soul. The nations of the world, not having received the Torah at Mount Sinai, do not reach the same degree of sanctity, and do not, consequently, cause such contamination.

Second Explanation: The Snake Bite

Ramban (Nachmanides), relates that death only came about because of "the poison of the snake." Only because of the disobedience of Adam and Eve, was death decreed upon mankind. Death is related to sin, and therefore contaminates.

There is a different type of death, Ramban writes. One who dies through the "kiss of the Divine Presence" does not become impure. When Rebbi, the author of the Mishnah passed away, the Kohanim were instructed to prepare the body, even though Kohanim are not permitted to become impure by the dead.

Along the lines of the Ramban, the Kli Yakar discusses Medrashic accounts of the defeat of the Angel of Death at the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. According to the Talmudic sages, the Angel of Death was expelled due to the exalted state of the Israelites. Only as a result of the Golden Calf, did the Angel of Death return. It was the Angel of Death which had been defeated -- not death, but the Angel of Death. The Angel of Death brings contamination; there would have been death anyway -- but not with contamination. Death would have been through the "kiss of the Divine Presence."

Synthesis: Sanctity or Sin?

Kli Chemdah questioned whether the two explanations are consistent. Seemingly, they are not: To the Ohr Hachayim, impurity has to do with the degree of sanctity of the soul. To the Ramban, impurity has to do with disobedience and error. One who reached an exceedingly lofty level would not die with impurity.

The analysis concluded, however, with a synthesis. The soul is forever pure and holy. The body, however, remains animal. After the soul departs, the body is the empty vessel which attracts impurity due to the traces of purity left from the soul. The most righteous individuals -- such as Moshe, Aharon and Miriam -- actually succeeded in purifying and sanctifying their bodies. Individuals such as these would not become contaminated at all.

Death of the Righteous

          To the Kli Chemdah, "the righteous do not contaminate," cannot be taken literally. We are only referring to those who merited to die from the "kiss," not all righteous people.

           Tosafos quotes a story in which Eliyahu (Elijah) appeared at the burial of Rabbi Akiva. They asked him, "What are you doing here -- you are a Kohein!" Eliyahu replied, "The righteous do not contaminate." Kli Chemdah complains that such a statement is difficult to follow -- Rabbi Akiva was brutally murdered by the Romans; this is not the death of the "kiss." The commentary concludes with an explanation from Tosafos there: Eliyahu did not mean actually that such a death does not contaminate, but replied in such a manner out of respect for Rabbi Akiva. In truth, because of the brutality of the tragedy, there were very few to prepare the body. Such an emergency situation, referred to as "meis mitzvah," is one of the most sacred commandments of the Torah. In such a circumstance, Kohanim, just as anyone else, are obligated to act swiftly and prepare the body for burial.

           Legally, Kli Chemdah concludes that there is no ruling that Kohanim may participate in a righteous man's burial. In the days of the High Court (the Sanhedrin), the Kohanim were to participate in the funeral of the Head of Sanhedrin, because -- out of reverence -- all Israel were considered his next of kin. (Kohanim are required to mourn for close family members.)

(c) Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein and Genesis, '97



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