The laws of the parah adumah, the red heifer, have enraptured mortals since the day it was commanded. There was no reason or rationale given for it. The nations of the world, baffled by it, mocked our observance of it. Even King Solomon, the wisest of men, claimed to be stupefied by its reasoning. And Moshe was the only mortal that understood the essence of its every nuance.
Its laws are complex, its symbolism mysterious, and the logic of its repercussions quite enigmatic. The red heifer’s ashes purify those who have become tamei (impure), yet the administrating Kohen who was tahor (pure) becomes tamei! There is no logic behind that occurrence; yet that is the law. So sacred was the red heifer that Moshe and Aaron sacrificed, that it ashes were saved from generation to generation. Each additional red-heifer offering was added to the remnants of the previous, so that the new ashes would mix with the vestigial ashes of Moshe’s original heifer. Hundreds of generations and thousands of Kohanim and Israelites who performed the mitzvah of parah adumah believed with unquestioning faith in the law’s ritual divinity and power.
I have one simple question. Why were these complex, hidden, and very spiritual laws placed smack in the middle of the Book of Bamidbar? The enigmatical laws of purity and impurity are almost entirely relegated to Sefer VaYikra (Leviticus). That sefer discusses sacrificial offerings. It also details a host of physio-spiritual maladies, among them, the laws of tzora’as, zav, zavah, nidah, and so forth. Shouldn’t the mystical requirements of the Parah Adumah join its counterparts together with the laws of the Kohanim? Why is it placed in the Book that recounts the stories of human folly -the malicious uprising of Korach, the miscalculations of the spies, the unfaithfulness of the sotah, the complaints against the heavenly fare of manna? What significance does the juxtaposition of these seemingly unexplainable rituals, obviously not congruent with mortal logic doing with the tales of error and miscalculation?
One evening during World War II, Senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee could not sleep. As chairman of the Senate appropriations committee, he could not understand why he should the administration was requesting some $2,000,000,000 towards certain unusual scientific research.
He called Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson and began to shout. “Do you expect me to sanction this tremendous appropriation without any idea as to where it is going!”
Stimson kept quiet. He pondered and hesitated, then he asked, “Can you keep a secret?” After McKellar assured him that he could, Stimson whispered, “We are about to split the atom.”
McKellar exploded. “Are you crazy? This is a war! We have men out there! We need guns! We need planes! We need ammunition! And you guys are fooling around with some hocus pocus — splitting atoms!”
It was only months later that McKellar, along with the entire world learned the power of this seemingly incomprehensible and esoteric exercise. Perhaps there is no better place to expound the laws of parah adumah than in the middle of Sefer Bamidbar. For it is this Torah section that discusses a generation that thinks they are able to calculate and define everything. It tells of spies who return from Canaan and exclaim that according to their calculations there is no logical way that Israel will conquer the land. It tells of Korach, who complained that according to his calculations he should be the prince of the tribe of Levi. Its Midrash tells of Korach gathering 250 men and ranting that according to his logic a mezuzah is unnecessary in a room filled with sacred books. It talks about false leaders who would be satisfied if only the spirit of the law is fulfilled, even if the letter of the law is not. Bamidbar even contains the story of Miriam, who, according to her reasoning, spoke ill of her brother Moshe. It discusses Jews who wanted meat rather than manna.
When humans make mortal calculations to redefine Torah law, there is no better time and place to talk about red heifers and the complex and esoteric laws thereof. The red cow and its laws represent the total omnipotence of Hashem, be it spirit, in logic, or in mechanics. It exclaims that that though we may search for rhyme and reason of Torah, we still must observe the mitzvos He commanded, regardless if we understand them. For there will always be some aspect that may only appear to us as mysterious as hocus pocus. Yet with uncalculating faith we must realize that there is great method to the many aspects we cannot deem mortal. In that manner we shall merit to be totally committed to Hashem’s Torah, and not our mortal vision of it.
Mordechai Kamenetzky – Yeshiva of South Shore
Text Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Associate Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.