The cloud covered the Appointed Tent, and the Glory of God filled the
Tabernacle. (Shemos 40:34)
This Shabbos is the third of the four parshios—Parashas Parah—read at this
time of year. The special Maftir will discuss the mitzvah of the Parah
Adumah—Red Heifer—necessary to purify someone who has become defiled through
a dead body, which was necessary before someone could partake of the Korban
Pesach—the Pesach Offering.
Like the Mishkan, which these two parshios are about, the Red Heifer helped
to rectify the sin of the golden calf. As Rashi explains at the beginning of
Parashas Chukas, from which this special Maftir is taken, the Red Heifer
cleans up after the calf like a mother cleans up after its child. Rashi even
explains how various different aspects of the Red Heifer rectified different
aspects of the golden calf.
However, the bottom line is that the Parah Adumah is a chok, a statute. It
is a law whose ultimate logic is beyond us, like not cooking milk and meat
together, or wearing something woven together from wool and linen. Perhaps
this fact itself was the tikun for the golden calf.
A person can learn Chumash year-after-year and become extremely familiar
with every verse, and all of the explanations of Rashi. Test him, and he
will answer, from memory, where each verse is, what it means, and what Rashi
comments on it. With so much at his finger tips, and lacking any questions
on what he knows, he might assume he knows all there is.
Until he learns Mishnah. Once he learns Mishnah, he will become aware, to
his surprise, of a world beyond the one with which he had become so
familiar. Questions will begin to arise that will force him to re-think what
he had previously been so certain about, even the simplest verses of the
However, if he continues to advance in his Torah learning, then that will be
only the beginning of his mind-expanding experience. The Talmud will force
him to investigate matters of which previously he wasn’t even aware, and as
the years go by and he becomes proficient in Talmud and its many
commentaries, he may feel like he is final getting a handle on the totality
of Torah—until that is, if he happens to learn some Sod, or Kabbalah.
However, the leap to Sod is a quantum one. It is absolutely amazing how you
can think you understand everything there is to know about something, only
to discover that the idea has far more dimensions than you could ever have
imagined. It is incredible how you can look at reality, think you see all
that there is to see, only to find out that your eyes, and your mind, have
either lied to or held back a large part of the truth from you. How many
billions of people walk around each day thinking that they know enough about
life in this world, when they actually know so little?
If there is one thing about Sod that is different from the other levels of
Torah, it is difficult to think that you have learned all there is to learn
about a particular idea. On the contrary, Sod is so sophisticated that it
makes you aware of how little you do know. It is extremely humbling.
Or, at least, it should be extremely humbling. In fact, that is what all
knowledge should do to a person: Make a person humble. Even a simple verse
of the Torah, if a person spends enough time on it, should be able to make a
person feel a sense of awe for God’s world. How much more so should this be
the case when one learns the deeper aspects of Torah, and knowledge that
reveals the inner workings of Creation. The last thing knowledge should do
is make a person into a heretic, so how does it happen?
The answer to the question is the difference between the golden calf and the
Red Heifer, even they are both cows, that is, of the same species.
However, as physically alike as they may have been, conceptually they were
worlds apart, and the difference is why very intelligent people can know
what they know and still doubt the existence of God. Or, why people can
learn Torah and still turn their backs on Torah from Sinai, and convince
themselves that God doesn’t care. Indeed, it is what the Mishkan was built
upon, as it says:
God told Moshe, “Tell the Children of Israel that anyone who desires to
bring to Me an elevated-offering should do so.” (Shemos 25:1-2)
The Hebrew term is nedavos haleiv—gifts of the heart; the Mishkan was built
from gifts of the heart, because:
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit. (Tehillim 51:19)
In other words, when the starting point is a true heart, then a Parah Adumah
is the result. However, when the starting point is a selfish heart, then a
eigel hazahav—golden calf—is the result. The same knowledge, two entirely
different outcomes, based upon the heart of the person who is doing the
learning. Hence, it says:
The secrets of God to those who fear Him. (Tehillim 25:14)
This is what the Leshem means when he explains the following verse and Rashi:
God saw that the light was good, and God separated between the light and the
darkness. (Bereishis 1:4)
He saw that the wicked were unworthy of using it, and therefore set it apart
for the righteous in the Future Time. (Rashi)
He made a separation in the illumination of the light, that it should not
flow or give off light except for the righteous, whose actions draw it down
and make it shine. However, the actions of the evil block it, leaving them
in darkness, and this itself was the hiding of the Light. (Sefer HaKlallim,
Klal 18, Anaf 8, Os 4)
The brain is enough to bring a person to the door of an idea, but it is the
heart of a person that is the key to unlock it, allowing the person to see
how it is a revelation of God in Creation. Without the proper heart, a
person can spend an entire lifetime at the door of a concept and never
really enter it. And, you’d be surprised how brilliant a person can appear
even though he remains at the threshold of the understanding of the idea his
entire life! You’d be surprised how much a person can know without really
ever appreciating the spiritual ramifications of his knowledge.
This is why we remind ourselves daily in the Shemonah Esrai:
You grace man with da’as—Godly knowledge—and from You comes knowledge,
understanding, and haskel.
The last word, haskel, comes from the word seichel, which means mind. The
mind is different from the brain, the latter being more like a computer.
However, the mind is more like consciousness, awareness, a level of knowing
something that is profound enough to cause us to alter our way of life. That
is not as common as some people might think.
In fact, even for someone who learns Torah, it is not an automatic reality
that the Torah he learns will automatically have as profound an impact on
the person as it ought to. This is the source of so much inconsistency in
the religious world that so many secular people like to point out. “They
learn this, but they act like this ...” Etc.
This is why we have areas of learning such as Pirkei Avos and Mussar, both
of which focus on helping a person to integrate his Torah on a practical,
everyday level, something that became necessary as a result of the golden
calf. As the Leshem explains, if Moshe Rabbeinu had been able to give the
first tablets to the Jewish people, the level of Torah they would have
received would have been that of the Messianic Era. As a result, learning it
would have automatically spiritually-enhanced the person.
However, Moshe Rabbeinu, because of the sin of the calf, was forced to break
those tablets, and return to God for a less spiritual version that requires
a person to not only learn Torah, but to work on himself constantly to be
impacted by it. Even just remembering what one has learned requires Divine
assistance (Megillah 6b); how much more so to be affected by it.
This idea was represented in the Mishkan, the Divine response to the golden
calf. After entering the Courtyard, which was 50 amos by 50 amos
corresponding to the Fifty Gates of Understanding, one still did not reach
the Holy of Holies, where God’s Providence was clearly manifest, without
first traversing the Heichel. That is where the Menorah, the Incense Altar,
and the Shulchan with the Lechem HaPanim was placed, each representing a
different element of daily life.
Thus, the Heichel represented the place in which one implemented the
knowledge gained in the Courtyard, metaphorically-speaking. Combined, the
Courtyard plus the Heichel was like Torah plus mussar, the combination of
which brought one to the Holy of Holies, so-to-speak, since the person’s
life is now a dynamic representation of the Torah he has learned. He has
reached the sacred level of Torah learning called haskel.
As we say in the Shemonah Esrai, such realization of knowledge is a gift
from God, and as such, has to be earned. And, we earn it through being
humble, by acknowledging the limitations of our learning and ability to
understand ideas. It comes from being real with the fact that knowing
anything is a Heavenly gift, and how much more so on such a level as to be
able to work with the idea and get pleasure, and more importantly, direction
I recently came across several comments from some agnostics and so-called
atheists. They clearly suffer from the golden calf syndrome, comfortably
dismissing the possibility that Creation was and is a function of the will
of God, and realities such as the Afterlife. They are certain in their
beliefs, as if they have already seen all there is to see.
Some made a point of bashing those who do hold religious beliefs even
though, when you break it down, the agnostics and atheists are doing the
exact same thing with their beliefs: dogmatically rejecting the other side.
However, there is a fundamental exception: Atheism and the like is a human
belief that began with humans, and does not claim to have begun otherwise.
Though some religions may be man-made, they all trace the original idea back
to a Divine Source, a claim that can’t be dismissed simply because an person
lacks the ability to fathom the possibility.
Someone secular recently wrote, in anger and frustration, to a religious
You have chosen to put religion before family. This is 2012 and my family is
of utmost importance to me ... You have a belief that cuts you off from the
outside world that passes you by.
It is not astounding how many secular Jews write off Torah Judaism, and
their relatives who keep it, with a confident ignorance. It is less than
remarkable that they resent how their Torah-observant children or siblings
make sacrifices for something that so many people disregard today,
especially when those sacrifices seem to affect them, in one way or another.
It is not surprising at all how they resent, most of all, being made to feel
guilty, which happens quite automatically, for not being religious, or for
being thea weak link in the family chain of Jewish tradition.
However, what is astounding is how they feel and express all of this with
almost little or no background in Jewish history, with little or no
understanding of Torah, and without any fear of being wrong. But then again,
when you have reform and conservative leaders doing the exact same thing,
choosing to believe only in those parts of Jewish tradition that support
their approach and lifestyle, then how can the average secular Jew be
expected to believe differently, especially in such a fast-faced and
Never mind the fact that such levels of assimilation lead to crises for the
Jewish people, often of terrible proportions. They don’t know Jewish
history; they don’t believe it is true. If religious Jews aren’t always so
good at connecting up the events of history with Divine Providence, then how
can secular Jews be expected to do so? It would take a huge miracle to wake
such people up to the mistakes they are making, and even more so the
spiritual leaders they turn to who purge them of any guilt they might feel.
Those who know better also know that there will be a day of reckoning, when
God will have had enough and decide to reveal Himself and the truth about
Torah. One way or another, the agnostics and atheists will go, and the
people who made fun of God, Torah, and its adherents will all of sudden
clamor to join them, if they even get the chance. In the past, they rarely
have. It’s almost as if God said, “There’s no hope for these guys, so let’s
just clean the slate and start again.”
However, until that time, there is no talking to people who do not want to
listen and who think they know the truth when all they know is their own
opinions. Until such time as God makes it clear that, as sophisticated as
the human mind is and its grasp of the inner workings of the physical
universe, God is far more sophisticated, people will continue to stumble
over their own intellectual arrogance and deny themselves the opportunity to
live according to the truth. Until such time, the golden calf will rule, and
Except, though, over people who live according to the concept of the Parah
Adumah. Such people are humble enough for God to grant them insight into the
hidden reality of Divine truth, even as the everyday world of secular man
keeps piling layer upon layer of falsehood upon it. They will be able to
rise above the mundane world in which agnostics and atheists have fun acting
as if they are right, and in which they constantly misinterpret Divine
patience for a lack of Divine Presence. And, rising above it, the people who
live with the intellectual humility of the Red Heifer can find the path to
true freedom, even if they remain, physically, in the world of the
It’s a vision thing, it always is. It is about an ability to see with one’s
mind’s eye, something God has to make possible, and something He only does
for the person who has worked on himself to the point that he is real with
God and Torah. On the surface of it, such a person may not be one of the
brightest of the population, but in the end, he will certainly be one of the
more intelligent. With less, he will be able to see more, while the rest who
know such much, see so little.