The Red Heifer: What God
Nadav and Avihu, each took his pan, put fire in them, and placed incense
upon it . . . (Devarim 10:1)
There is a restaurant in Jerusalem called The Red Heifer, known for its
steaks, etc. It is an ironic choice of names for a restaurant it occurred to
me, since the Red Heifer was one “sacrifice” not even the kohanim benefited
from. They were not allowed to eat from its meat or even keep its skin. When
it came to the Red Heifer, or Parah Adumah, steak was not on the menu.
Instead, the Red Heifer was completely burned, including its dung, because,
unlike with respect to other Temple “offerings” it was the ashes that were
necessary. The ashes were used in a special mixture that was sprinkled upon
someone who had become defiled by the dead, in order to purify them once again.
To date there have only been nine such Red Heifers eligible for use in this
service. One of the signs that will herald the Messianic Age will be a
tenth, since we will once again need to be purified from our state of
defilement in order to visit the Temple that will have returned. Restaurants
The reason for this deviation in the weekly reading of the Torah is because,
in Temple times, we would have had to sacrifice a Pesach offering on the
14th of Nissan. To do that, and to be included in those who could eat from
it at the Seder, one had to be purified of all spiritual impurity,
especially from contact with the dead. To commemorate this we at least read
about the procedure even if we can’t perform it.
There is a lesser known reason for the special Maftir in advance of Pesach,
but an extremely important one nonetheless.
As Rashi explains, the Red Heifer represents a kind of spiritual antidote
for the ills of the golden calf. The episode of the calf was a turning point
in Jewish history from which we have still not recovered. This is why, as
Rashi explains in Parashas Ki Sisa, that every punishment the Jewish people
have received since then has incorporated punishment for the golden calf as
This is because everything we have done wrong in history since the incident
of the calf is rooted in it. What happened then at the base of Mt. Sinai, as
Moshe Rabbeinu remained above on the mountain receiving Torah, spiritually
handicapped all of us, making us vulnerable to every other sin we have
committed since then. Had we not sinned with the calf we would have received
the first tablets and entered the Messianic Era.
What then was the damage and what was the fix?
As with respect to all Torah, there are four levels on which to explain what
occurred that fateful day and why. There is Pshat, the “simplest” and most
obvious explanation, there is Remez, “hinted” meanings, there is Drush, or
“exegetical” explanations, and finally there is Sod, Kabbalah’s take on the
On the level of Pshat the golden calf was a poor excuse by the Erev Rav to
return to the idol-worshipping ways of Egypt. As the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh
explains at the beginning of Parashas Beshallach, Pharaoh had given the Erev
Rav the mission of agitating the Jewish people along the way so they would
return to Egypt at the end of the three days that Moshe had told Pharaoh
about. Using Moshe Rabbeinu’s misperceived delay the Erev Rav did exactly
what Pharaoh had asked of them.
On the level of Remez, their words hinted to a deeper level of religious
attack. When they proclaimed:
“These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of
Egypt!” (Shemos 32:4)
their intent became clear: weaken Jewish commitment to Torah and mitzvos.
They were really saying, “Did you leave one form of slavery to enter
another? You left Egypt to become a free people to do what you want whenever
you want to do!”
A calf frolics all day long without concern about carrying any kind of yoke
or of having to work for someone else. Its large eyes portray an innocence
that only lasts while it remains a calf. In an effort to “freeze” that stage
of life, the Erev Rav cast the calf in gold to become a symbol of the
carefree life of eternal youth.
Midrashim, there are plenty. The most prominent ones, perhaps, speak of how
the golden calf emerged from the oven on its own, and alive. The gold came
from the people, from the men willingly and the women forcefully. The black
magic was courtesy of Yunnus and Yumbrus, two sons of Bilaam and leaders of
the Erev Rav.
The piece d’resistance? That was the special metal plate that Moshe Rabbeinu
had used to recover the coffin of Yosef from the Nile river where the
Egyptians had sunken it after his death. They knew that the Jewish people
wouldn’t leave Egypt without it as they had promised Yosef, so they hid it
there to prevent the exodus.
What they did not know was how Moshe Rabbeinu, at the right time, would
inscribe a metal plate with a Name of God on it, as well as the words,
“Arise Ox!” (since Yosef is compared to an ox). Then, after throwing it into
the Nile river, it would mystically elevate the coffin and and enable it to
However, what Moshe apparently did not not know was that after witnessing
the spectacle a Jew named Michah retrieved the Kabbalistic plate and took it
with him out of Egypt. When they threw the gold into the furnace to make an
idol Michah threw the plate in as well. True to the words on the plate an ox
arose in the form of a calf. True to the black magic that accompanied the
procedure, the metal calf emerged bleating and moving like a real one.
Question: How can something used for such a holy purpose be used for exactly
The great Shlomo HaMelech addressed the issue:
“This corresponding to this did God make.” (Koheles 7:14)
This verse is usually used to explain that for everything God made on the
side of holiness He created a counterpart on the side of impurity. This does
not only mean that whatever you find in the world being used for good there
is something like it being used for evil. It also means that the same thing
can be used for both good or evil, depending upon the person using it, and why.
This was a very important part of the message of the Aitz HaDa’as Tov v’Ra,
the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It wasn’t as if some fruit had
“good” knowledge and other fruit had “evil” knowledge. It was that, based
upon the person doing the eating and the reason for it, the knowledge that
resulted would be either good or evil. It had the potential for either kind
of knowledge, and it was the person eating from the tree who determined
which one became reality.
We have a great example of the same idea in our day and age: the Internet, a
modern version of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. For many today it
is either an angel or devil incarnate. Some want to applaud it while others
want to ban it. How can two polar views exist regarding the same thing?
Looking at the two sides, it is not hard to answer that question. Both agree
that the Internet accomplishes amazingly good things in this world, and both
agree that it accomplishes just the opposite as well. But one side says
that, for all its good, the Internet has too much potential to easily do
tremendous evil. The other side says, for all its terrible evil, the good it
promotes is just too valuable to be pushed aside.
One Internet, two extreme viewpoints.
The problem, of course, is not the Internet, any more than it was the Aitz
HaDa’as Tov v’Ra in Adam’s time. The problem then was the people eating from
the tree, just as the problem today is the people using the Internet. It’s a
simple equation that goes something like this: man, whose “every imagination
of his heart was only evil all the time” (Bereishis 6:5), plus Internet,
which provides an easy and cheap fulfillment of some of his most immoral
imaginations, equals moral disasters.
And not just moral disasters. You don’t have to be religious and Torah
adherent to lose self-respect by going after dark desires. Internally people
know when they are behaving subgrade, and try as they might to hide it, it
eats away at their self-esteem. You may be wondering, what is the point, at
least in terms of this week’s parshah and special Maftir?
The centerpiece of the parshah is the tragic death of Nadav and Avihu, made
all the more tragic because of how and why it happened. They were great
people who had done great things. In Sha’ar HaGilgulim you can learn just
how great their souls actually were. Yet those souls were burned out of them
when they brought their “unauthorized” fire offering.
There are a few explanations as to what exactly they did wrong to warrant
such a severe Divine response at such a momentous period in history. At the
end of the day, after all the discussion becomes great divrei Torah and
makes it into holy books for all eternity, they will all have come down to
one conclusion. Whatever they did, and why ever they did it, they did not do
what God wanted. Period.
This is what the Red Heifer symbolized, what God “wants.” It represented His
pure, unadulterated will, not having been subject to human interpretation
and explanation, because being a statute it was beyond both. It was a
reminder that though God gives us plenty of leeway to think for ourselves,
and even rewards us for trying to understand His intention, the bottom line
is to do the simple, plain, and pure will of God.
Loyalty to God is loyalty to His will. It means knowing that no matter how
much we think we can improve upon a situation ourselves that we should not
until we know for sure it is what God wants. This requires two components.
First, we must be loyal to Torah tradition as passed down through the ages.
Second, it means receiving Divine help to make the correct decision, which
is based upon the fulfillment of the first condition.
This is what the Erev Rav through the incident of the golden calf came to
undermine. This is what the Red Heifer came to rectify. The former promises
freedom but delivers slavery to the yetzer hara instead. The latter is the
best ticket to freedom a person can ever have.
Text Copyright © 2014 by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Torah.org.