Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann
Perhaps the greatest and most discussed mystery of the Torah is the
mitzvah of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, described at the
beginning of Parashas Chukas, the first of this week's two parshiyos.
Indeed, Chazal, our Sages, tell us (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:6) that
aside from Moshe, no one has ever fully understood the reasoning
behind the Parah Adumah. Even Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) -
wisest of all men - said of the Parah (Koheles/Ecclesiastes 7:23), "I
said, 'I will become wise,' yet it is beyond me." (Yoma 14a)
There are many aspects of the Parah Adumah which need to be
examined. Most mefarshim (commentators) understand that its
greatest mystery is the fact that it renders pure one who is impure,
yet it imparts tum'ah (impurity) to one who was previously tahor
(pure). Namely, one who has been defiled by contact with a corpse
must be twice sprinkled with the ashes of the Red Heifer, mixed with
water, after which his tum'ah leaves him. (Actually, it's not quite so
simple, see Rambam, Laws of Parah Adumah for full details.) On the
other hand, if the same mixture happened to be sprinkled
inadvertently on one who was non-tamei, he is rendered ritually
impure, and requires immersion in a mikvah. How can the same
mixture have such contradictory effects?
K'li Yakar (Rabbi Shlomo Efrayim of Luntshitz, [5310-5379; 1550-
1619]) however, offers a brilliant explanation as to how this works.
The law is that fruits, grains, and produce can receive tum'ah (ritual
defilement) only after having coming in contact with water (or certain
other liquids related to water - see Vayikra/Leviticus 11:38, Rambam,
Laws of Food-Related Defilement, Ch. 1). If a fruit has not come into
contact with water since being harvested, it is not susceptible to
tum'ah and can not be rendered impure. Isn't this strange? We
normally think of water as the source of all purity! When our hands
are impure, we wash them with water. When our bodies are tam'eh,
we immerse them in a mikvah or open body of water. Even the ashes
of the Red Heifer were ineffective until mixed with water. So how is it
that contact with water is a prerequisite to tum'ah acceptance?
This can be understood, he explains, by understanding the scientific
principle that all matter lies in a dormant state until it is "awakened"
by an opposing force. A frozen object can only be rendered
molecularly active by its opposing force - heat. A motionless object
can only be jostled into movement by the thrust of something
moving. The greater the opposing force, the more powerful the
awakening becomes. This is why fruits are only susceptible to tum'ah
after contact with water: Water is indeed the source of taharah/purity.
Yet in order for tum'ah to "awaken" an object and render it impure,
the object must be its opposite; it must have first been in a state of
purity in order for the tum'ah to have its full effect.
Seen in this light, we can look at the Parah Adumah mixture as
possessing two opposite forces. The water is the source of all
taharah. The ashes of the slaughtered cow represent death, sin (of
the Golden Calf - see Rashi), and impurity. Depending on what the
mixture comes into contact with, one of the two forces will be
awakened. If the mixture touches the body of one who has been
defiled, the water is awakened and counteracts the tum'ah with its
taharah, thereby rendering the person/object ritually pure. If, on the
other hand, the mixture contacts someone tahor, the ashes are
awakened, and render him impure.
This amazing explanation, however, "arouses" the question: So what's
the mystery? We have given a rational explanation for the
contradictory forces of the Parah Adumah. What is it that defies all
rhyme and reason?
The "law of opposing forces" holds true with regard to personal
growth and interpersonal relationships as well. We all, to some extent,
are subject to the obstacle of dormancy and complacence. While
ideally we should be in a constant state of forward movement and
growth, in fact we go through periods of stagnation and apathy.
Often, it is only when we are acted upon by an "opposing force" -
when our character and our beliefs are challenged and tested - that
we are jostled into a state of new growth and action. Even Avraham
Avinu had to go through ten tests in order to attain his maximum
Yet therein lies the conundrum. As a rule we seek to distance
ourselves from undue challenges and tests, for one can never know
when the challenge will perhaps prove too difficult. Yet if we are not
challenged, we will cease to grow, and will degenerate into a constant
state of spiritual slumber. How do we find the perfect mixture - the
Parah Adumah waters - wherein the tum'ah awakens the taharah, the
challenges arousing the best in us and driving us to heights
unreachable by those spiritually-unchallenged?
Perhaps this is the mystery of the Parah Adumah. Ultimately, we are
destined to spend our whole lives looking for the Parah-Adumah
perfect-balance. Life is not - and will never be - a straight and
unswerving line. We must, at times, pull back in order to go forward,
much as the archer must first draw backwards in order to achieve the
maximum forward momentum. (This is referred to in sifrei Kabbalah
as the concept of Ratzo ve-Shov, the constant fluctuation between
forward movement and pullbacks.) We search for the perfect balance,
yet it alludes us. If, however, we remember that it is only through the
setbacks and challenges with which life presents us, that we ultimately
attain our greatest growth, then perhaps we will embrace life's
obstacles and challenges, instead of shunning them.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication was sponsored by Mr. H.
Fening, in memory of his father R' Elazar ben R' Moshe,
who passed away 14 Tamuz, 5759.
Text Copyright © 2000 Rabbi Eliyahu Hoffmann and Project Genesis, Inc.