The Yoke's On You!
By Rabbi Pinchas Winston
The third of the four special readings at this time of year is called
Parashas Parah, which is the section of the Torah that discusses the laws
of the Red Heifer (Parah Aduma). Some even hold that this reading, like
Parashas Zachor (which was read the Shabbos before Purim), is prescribed by
the Torah itself. This parsha was read during Temple times in advance of
Rosh Chodesh Nissan to remind those people who had become spiritually
defiled through contact with the dead, and therefore unable to offer the
Pesach-Offering, to become purified through the water containing the ashes
of the Red Heifer.
But, you may ask, "We don't have the Temple, the ashes of the Red Heifer,
and the ability to offer a Korban-Pesach today ... Why do we adhere to this
There is a concept in the Talmud that, if one endeavors to fulfill a
mitzvah and, for reasons beyond his control, he is prevented from carrying
out his will, still, Heaven accounts it to us as if he did in fact complete
the mitzvah (Brochos 6a). Hence, when we read this parsha, we are regarded
as if we had purified ourselves from our defilement, and rendered ourselves
fit for bringing our sacrifices in the proper time.
However, there is another reason why this tradition has relevance today as
well. The Parah Aduma represents the quintessential chok (statute) in the
Torah, whose meaning was revealed only to Moshe Rabbeinu. Even Shlomo
HaMelech, called the wisest man of all time, wrote of the Parah Aduma:
"All this have I thought I would attain wisdom, but it is distant from me."
Nevertheless, in spite of the mystical background of this mitzvah, the
rabbis had this to say regarding this statute:
"Why are only male animals valid for all the sacrifices, while here a
female is required? Rav Ivo said: It can be compared to the son of a
maidservant who dirtied the king's palace. The king ordered, "Let his
mother come and clean up the filth!" Likewise did G-d say, "Let the heifer
come and atone for the act of the golden calf!" (Yalkut Shimoni, 759).
In other words, though we may not understand the details of the golden
calf, how it affects spiritual purification from the dead and its inherent
Paradox (see Parashas Tzav, 5757), we do know that the Parah Aduma comes in
response to the golden calf. This is one of the reasons why this mitzvah
was given to the Jewish people on the day the Mishkan, which was also a
response to the golden calf, was erected. Therefore, to understand what the
golden calf represented is to understand the role of Parashas Parah in
advance of Pesach, even in our time.
"This, Israel, is your god, who brought you out of Egypt!" (Shemos 32:4)
This was the cry of the Erev Rav after the golden calf literally popped out
of the furnace. After Moshe appeared to have been detained beyond
expectation, says the midrash, the Erev Rav seized the opportunity to
create panic among the people and steer them away from G-d, back to
Egyptian idol worship.
However, hadn't they gone a little too far? What kind of credibility could
they have expected to achieve in the eyes of the Jewish people by making
such a claim? How could the calf, a new creation, be responsible for what
happened in the past?
The answer lies in what the golden calf represented. Traditionally, the
calf represents frolicsomeness, a childish, carefree attitude towards life.
It was this image that was cast in gold, the symbol of eternity, suggesting
a carefree lifestyle free of any responsibility to any master other than
ourselves ... forever.
This was the Erev Rav's message: "Israel! Why did you leave Egypt, and the
terrible slavery you suffered there? To become slaves again? To take upon
yourselves another yoke of suffering? No! You left Egypt to become free men
... That is what took you out of Egypt, the dream of a carefree lifestyle
... to become masters of your own destinies!"
This is why Moshe had no choice but to break the Luchos (Tablets), about
which the rabbis wrote:
The Tablets were the work of G-d and the writing was that of G-d engraved
(charus) on the Tablets. Don't read charus (engraved), but cheirus
(freedom), for there is no one freer than one who studies the Torah. (Pirke
The message of the Luchos was that freedom lies not in the rejection of
moral responsibility, but in the acceptance of it. We were redeemed from
Egypt to accept the Torah, and all of its contents, including the most
minute detail. It was upon this premise that we rode to freedom from
Egyptian immorality, and from a people compared to the frolicsome calf.
The Parah Aduma comes to purify us of the Egyptian attitude towards life,
which, in the eyes of the Torah represents spiritual death. To begin with,
it is a statute, not an idea that can be dissected and understood
"scientifically" with the logic of man. Therefore, observance of the Parah
Aduma demands obedience to a Higher Knowledge, loving acceptance of the
As well, the Red Heifer teaches us to take responsibility for the problems
we create, so that we can resolve them, thereby improving ourselves and the
world around us. It also tells us that when things go wrong in life, they
can often be traced back to causes we ourselves created. Even on the level
that we have difficulty perceiving, life in this world is always a matter
of causes we create, and the effects they have been Divinely-ordained to
In advance of Pesach, the holiday that celebrates more than just our
national freedom, we need to hear this message. We need to be reminded that
freedom lies not in being lax in the observance of mitzvos, but in being
zealous to perform them. Our bodies may not enjoy hearing receiving this
little memorandum, but it is the key that unlocks the door to free the
Jewish spirit, and to achieve true and lasting freedom.
It lends a whole different meaning to being "well-red."