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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chukas: From ashes and evil to purity and goodness


G'd only revealed the understanding of the laws of Parah Adumah (the red cow) to Moses. The Parah Adumah is an atonement for the sin of the Egel (golden calf). G'd decided to divide the punishment. Seeing the ashes of the Parah Adumah in the Temple and studying its laws reminds us of the Egel. It is so difficult to understand how the impure becomes pure at the same time as the pure becomes impure that it was even beyond King Solomon. Only G'd can bring about goodness from evil, purity from impurity. The Talmud teaches that a person is obligated to thank G'd both for something good and for something bad. G'd allows impurity, wickedness, and other evils, only as a means to produce purity and goodness.

Red cow decree

In the beginning of this week's parasha, it speaks about the laws of Parah Adumah (the red cow). Rashi quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma that explains that these laws are a decree beyond human understanding. There are many decrees in the Torah including the prohibition of eating meat and milk together, and wearing garments made of wool and linen. However, the Midrash says that this decree is the only one that G'd only revealed to Moses. No other human being ever fully understood it.

Atone for golden calf

Later in this week's parasha, Rashi quotes Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan who explains that the Parah Adumah is an atonement for the sin of the Egel (golden calf). He shows how the details of the laws surrounding the Parah Adumah correspond to the details surrounding the sin of the Egel. For example, just as the community donated the materials to make the Egel; similarly, the Parah Adumah had to be donated by the community. The Midrash further compares the connection between the Egel and the Parah Adumah to a child that soiled a mansion. The mother of the child was called upon to clean up the mess that her child made. In the same way, the Parah Adumah comes to atone for the sin of the Egel. The red colour of the Parah Adumah symbolizes sin and it must be without blemish. This symbolizes that it atones for the Jewish people who were without blemish until they sinned by serving the Egel. When they sinned, they threw off the Heavenly Yoke. Therefore, the Parah Adumah could not have a yoke on its neck.

Not annihilate

After the sin of the Egel, G'd's initial reaction was to destroy the Jewish people immediately and develop a new nation from the offspring of Moses. As 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 with G'd to save the Jewish people. G'd agreed but told Moses that "On the day that I make my account, I shall bring their sin to account against them (Shemos 32:34). This means that G'd, in His great mercy, decided to divide 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 Egel (see Sanhedrin 66b).

Ashes and study atone

Rashi (19:9) quotes from the Mishnah (Parah 3:11) that the ashes of the Parah Adumah were divided into three portions: One portion was kept in the Temple. When the Jews came to the Temple and saw these ashes, it would remind them of the sin of the Egel, and they would regret their communal sin. In this way, the ashes were instrumental in bringing about atonement for the sin of the Egel. After the destruction of the Temple, when we read in the Torah and study the laws of the Parah Adumah, we also have an opportunity to go through the same emotions. In this way we can achieve atonement for the sin of the Egel even today.

Pure and impure

Rabbi Yosef Zvi Salant asks, if the Parah Adumah comes to atone for the Egel, why is it still referred to as a decree? To answer this he quotes a verse from Job (14:4): "Who can produce purity from impurity, is it not just One? Says the Talmud (Niddah 9a), this refers to the water into which the ashes of the Parah Adumah 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. As the Talmud (Yumah 14a) 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 this aspect of the laws of Parah Adumah.

Goodness springs forth from evil

The Midrash Rabba (19:1) elaborates on this concept and shows a number of situations where something pure develops from impurity, or something good comes from a source of evil. For example, we find wicked people who had righteous descendants either immediately or in later generations. Rabbi Yecheskel Levenstein, the legendary mashgiach of the Mirrer Yeshiva during the Holocaust in Shanghai, discusses this Midrash in one of his mussar talks. He points out that, according to 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. For in the end, goodness will spring forth from this evil and wickedness.

Bless G'd for both good and bad

The Talmud (Berachot 54a) teaches that a person is obligated to say a blessing and thank G'd for something bad, just like for something good. This sounds strange. Why should one thank G'd for something bad? However, with this insight, that G'd develops good from bad, it is much easier to comprehend this idea. The famous Ponevez Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Eliazar Shach, often related how at the time when the Russians entered Poland, many Jews were exiled to Siberia. The ones left behind took a tearful leave of what was perceived as the wretched victims of the cruelty of the Soviet Union. Such a tragedy, how would they fare under the cruel Russians in the tough Siberian winters? Years later, at the end of the Holocaust, many of these exiles returned to rebuild their lives, whereas the vast majority of those who had seen them off met their death in the concentration camps. In retrospect, one can clearly see the hand of G'd saved these people and took them away before the real danger came around.

Hidden lesson

This is the hidden lesson that we learn from the Parah Adumah. G'd in His infinite wisdom allows impurity, wickedness, and other evils, only in order to eventually produce purity and goodness. We 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 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 notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.

Shalom. Michael Deverett

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Shema Yisrael Torah Network
Jerusalem, Israel