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 Chumash.
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 from it.
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 relative:
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 heart-drawing world?
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 does.
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 mentally-enslaved.
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.
Copyright © by Rabbi Pinchas Winston and Project Genesis, Inc.
Rabbi Winston has authored many books on Jewish philosophy (Hashkofa). If you enjoy Rabbi Winston’s Perceptions on the Parsha, you may enjoy his books. Visit Rabbi Winston’s online book store for more details! www.thirtysix.org