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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chukas: From ashes and evil to purity and goodness
The reason for the decree of the red cow is the one and only Torah law that G'd only revealed to Moses and no other human being ever understood it. The red cow is an atonement for the sin of the golden calf. The sin of the golden calf was so great that G'd decided to break up the punishment. Seeing the ashes in the Temple and studying the laws of the red cow after the destruction of the Temple reminds us of the golden calf. That the impure becomes pure at the same time as the pure becomes impure is so difficult to understand that it was even beyond King Solomon. Only the hand of G'd can bring about goodness from evil, purity from impurity The Talmud teaches that a person is obligated to bless G'd both for something good and for something bad. G'd brings about impurity, wickedness, and other evils, only in order to eventually produce purity and goodness.
Red cow decree
In the beginning of this week's Torah portion, we are told about the decree of the red cow. Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma who explains that a decree is a Torah law that is beyond human understanding. In the Torah there are many decrees including the prohibition of mixing meat and milk foods and mixing wool and linen garments. However, the Midrash says that the decree of the red cow is the one and only Torah law where the reason was only revealed by G'd to Moses and no other human being ever understood it.
Atone for golden calf
Later in this week's portion, Rashi quotes Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan who explains that the red cow is an atonement for the sin of the golden calf. He shows how the details of the laws surrounding the red cow correspond to the details surrounding the sin of the golden calf. For example, just as there was a large group of Jews who donated the materials to make the golden calf; similarly, it was necessary for the red cow to be donated by the community. The Midrash further compares the connection between the golden calf and the red cow to a child of a maid-servant that soiled her master's mansion, where the mother of the child was called upon to clean up the mess made by her offspring. In the same way, the red cow comes to atone for the sin of the calf. The redness of the cow symbolizes sin. The requirement for it to be without blemish is to atone for the Jews who originally were without blemish but developed a blemish by their participation in this sin. The Jews threw off the Heavenly Yoke when they made the golden calf; therefore, the red cow was prohibited from ever having worn a yoke on its neck.
At the time after the Jews had made the golden calf, G'd's initial reaction was to destroy them immediately and make a new nation from the offspring of Moses. G'd said to Moses: "Let My anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them and I shall make you a great nation" (Shemos 32:10). Moses pleaded and prayed to G'd and G'd agreed not to annihilate the Jews. However, G'd told Moses that "On the day that I make my account, I shall bring their sin to account against them (Shemos 32:34). The sin of the golden calf was so great that G'd in His great mercy decided to break up the punishment into small portions. As Rashi explains, whenever G'd punishes for the sins of the Jewish nation throughout the generations, some of that punishment will include punishment for the sin of the golden calf (see Sanhedrin 66b).
Ashes and study atone
Rashi (19:9) quotes from the Mishnah (Parah 3:11) that the ashes of the red cow were divided into three portions: One of these portions was to be kept throughout the generations. Whenever the Jews at the time of the Temple service would see these ashes, they would be reminded of the sin of the golden calf. Since upon seeing the ashes the Jews would regret their communal sin, the ashes were instrumental in bringing about their atonement. After the destruction of the Temple, when we read Parashas Parah and study the laws of the red cow, we are also reminded of the sin of the golden calf and this in turn brings us to regret our communal sin. In this way we achieve atonement for the sin of the golden calf even today.
Pure and impure
Rabbi Yosef Zvi Salant asks, if we know a reason for the golden calf, why is it still referred to as a decree? To answer this he quotes the Talmud (Niddah 9a) which quotes from Job (14:4): "Who can produce purity from impurity, is it not just One? Says the Talmud, this refers to the water into which the ashes of the red cow are mixed. The impure person upon whom this water is sprinkled becomes purified, whereas the pure person who touches it becomes impure. This apparent contradiction is so difficult to understand that it was even beyond King Solomon, the wisest sage of all time. The Talmud teaches that when King Solomon said (Koheles 7:23) "I said I will become wise but it is far removed from me", he was referring to the decree of the red cow.
Goodness springs forth from evil
The Midrash Rabba in this week's portion (19:1) elaborates on this and brings a number of situations where either purity comes out of impurity or goodness comes out of evil. For example, we find wicked people who had righteous children either immediately or as later offspring. Rabbi Yecheskel Levenstein, the legendary mashgiach who was one of the leaders of the Mirrer Yeshiva during the Holocaust, when it set up temporary residence in Shanghai, China, discusses this Midrash in one of his mussar talks. He points out that, from the point of the laws of nature, the fruit and produce should always be similar to the source that produces it. Only the hand of G'd, can bring about goodness from evil, purity from impurity, etc. With this insight, we can understand how sometimes G'd will allow wickedness and evil to exist. In the complete, final account, from this evil and wickedness, goodness will spring forth.
Bless G'd for both good and bad
The Talmud (Berachot 54a) teaches that a person is obligated to bless G'd for something bad just as one blesses G'd for something good. Without the knowledge that G'd is capable of bringing good from bad, it is totally beyond human comprehension why one should bless G'd for something that is bad. The famous Ponevez Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Eliazar Shach, often related how at the time when the Russians entered Poland and exiled many Jews to Siberia, the ones left behind took a tearful leave of what was seen as the wretched victims of the cruelty of the Soviet Union. Such a tragedy, how would they fare in the tough Siberian winters? Years later, at the end of the Holocaust, many of the exiles returned to rebuild their lives whereas the vast majority of those who had seen them off met their death in the concentration camps. Only the hand of G'd saved these people and took them away before the real danger came around.
This is the hidden lesson from the decree of the red cow. G'd in His infinite wisdom brings about impurity, wickedness, and other evils, only in order to eventually produce purity and goodness. The Jewish nation have endured almost 2000 years of exile and have experienced a lot of difficulties in many different ways, culminating with the atrocities of the Holocaust. It is our strong belief that out of the ashes and the evil will spring forth a beautiful life and good future for us and the whole world with the coming of Moshiach soon in our days.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network