Obedience and Understanding

מרן הגאב"ד שליט"א
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Atoning for the Golden Calf

In this week’s parsha we learn about the para aduma, the red heifer, which was used to purify those who had become impure by association with a dead body.  Shlomo HaMelech, the wisest of all men, endeavored to understand the meaning of this mysterious ritual, but was unable to fathom its depths.[1]  Of this, the possuk states, “I thought to be wise, but wisdom is far from me.”[2]

Rashi, in the name of Rav Moshe HaDarshan, explains that the para aduma atones for the sin of the Golden Calf.  He compares this to a child who sullied the king's palace.  The child’s mother was then called to clean her child’s filth.  So too, the heifer atones for the sin of the calf.

Why then do our Sages tell us that Shlomo was unable to discover the reason for the para aduma, thus implying that there is no discernible reason?  Rashi offers a fine reason for it.

It seems that Rashi’s reason does not contradict our Sages’ implication.  Just the opposite, his reason complements them.  Elsewhere, we explained that the sin of the Golden Calf did not stem from a denial of Hashem.  Nor was it a lowly act of idolatry, in the normal usage of the term.  Bnei Yisroel did not search for an idolatrous god to replace Hashem, chas v’shalom.  Rather, they wished to construct a vessel, similar to the Cherubim, through which Hashem would communicate with them and guide them.

Until then, they had been led by Moshe Rabbeinu, the emissary of Hashem.  They had miscalculated the appointed time for Moshe’s return, and believed that he had died on Har Sinai.  Therefore, they searched for a different emissary to act as their liaison with Hashem.  In their great admiration of Moshe, they could not believe that any human being could possibly fill his place.  Instead, they constructed the Golden Calf, using the Holy Names of Hashem and Kabbalistic techniques based on Sefer Yetzira.[3]

Our Sages tell us that when Bnei Yisroel were loyal to Hashem’s Will, the Cherubim faced one another.  When they were disloyal, the Cherubim turned away from each other.[4]  As such, the Cherubim served to express Hashem’s favor or disfavor with His nation.  When Bnei Yisroel made the Golden Calf, they hoped it would serve the same purpose.

These considerations, as noble as they might appear, were absolutely unacceptable.  We have no right to let our reason supersede the commandments of the Torah.  Instead, Bnei Yisroel should have believed with simple sincerity that Moshe would return as he had promised, bearing with him the Torah he received in Heaven.

From Shlomo HaMelech we learn that the mitzva of para aduma is a “chok” – a mitzva that we cannot understand, nor are we meant to understand it.  We fulfill this mitzva simply to obey Hashem’s will.  Rashi adds that this simple, sincere act of submission to Hashem’s will, atones for the sin of the Golden Calf, in which this simple obedience was lacking.


The Statutes of Pesach and Para


David HaMelech prayed, “יהי לבי תמים בחוקיך - May my heart be sincere in your statutes.”[5]  The Midrash explains that he referred to two specific statutes - the Korban Pesach, of which it is written, “זאת חוקת הפסח - This is the statute of the Korban Pesach…”[6]; and the para aduma, of which it is written, “זאת חוקת התורה - This is the statute of the Torah … they shall bring you a red heifer”[7].

Regarding both mitzvos, the term “chok - statute” is used.  What is the relationship between these two mitzvos?  Why did David HaMelech pray regarding them both, that his heart be sincere in their fulfillment?

It seems that the Midrash did not intend to compare these mitzvos, but to contrast them.  We are commanded to investigate the Korban Pesach.  On Seder night, we encourage our children to ask question after question, to delve into every nuance of its meaning.  Even the simple son asks, “What is this?”  For the son who does not know how to ask, we open the subject for him, to awaken his curiosity.

Regarding the mitzva of para aduma, the opposite is true.  Even Shlomo HaMelech said of it, “I thought to be wise, but wisdom is far from me.”[8]  We cannot understand the para aduma.  It is a statute of the King, which we are forbidden to question.[9]

David HaMelech saw that sometimes we are forbidden to question, and sometimes we are required to do so.  He prayed that Hashem help him weigh the pursuit of wisdom against the unquestioning acceptance of Hashem’s will, and apply each in its appropriate place.

When are we meant to ask and investigate, and when are we meant to humbly accept?  We learn the answer to this from Avraham Avinu.  After he bound his son as a sacrifice and lifted a knife to slaughter him, an angel called out to him, warning him not to harm his son.  Avraham then questioned Hashem’s instructions.

“First You told me, ‘Your lineage will be continued through Yitzchak.’[10]  Then You told me, ‘Take your son… and offer him as a sacrifice.’[11]   Now You tell me, ‘Do not send your hand against the child.’[12][13]

Why did Avraham wait until after the third instruction to question the contradiction?  As soon as he was commanded to sacrifice Yitzchak, he could have asked that this seemed to contradict Hashem’s promise that Yitzchak would continue his lineage.

As long as Avraham Avinu had a responsibility to uphold, he asked no questions.  Hashem commanded him to offer Yitzchak as a sacrifice, and Avraham hastened to comply, paying no heed to any misgivings.  After Hashem told him to not to harm Yitzchak, he no longer had any obligation to fulfill.  Then it was the time to ask, in order to fully understand Hashem’s commandments.


Our Sages tell us:

בשעה שהקדימו ישראל נעשה לנשמע באו ששים ריבוא של מלאכי השרת. לכל אחד ואחד מישראל קשרו לו שני כתרים, אחד כנגד נעשה ואחד כנגד נשמע.

When Bnei Yisroel placed “na’aseh” before “nishma”, 600,000 angels came and placed two crowns on the head of each Jew – one corresponding to na’aseh and the other corresponding to nishma. [14]

The Gemara here implies that they were rewarded not simply for saying “na’aseh v’nishma”, but for placing na’aseh before nishma.  If so, there was only one point of merit, and they should have received only one crown as reward.

In truth, Bnei Yisroel were rewarded for placing na’aseh before nishma – for accepting Hashem’s commandments, without waiting to hear what his orders would be.  However, they were also rewarded for placing nishma after na’aseh – for seeking to understand the reason for these orders.

The crown of “na’aseh” corresponded to the statute of the para aduma – which represents unquestioning obedience.  The crown of “nishma” corresponded to the statute of Korban Pesach – which represents the desire to understand the wisdom behind the mitzvos.


The Survival of Klal Yisroel in Exile

The Torah states regarding the mitzva of para aduma:

ויקחו אליך פרה אדמה תמימה אשר אין בה מום אשר לא עלה עליה על. ונתתם אתה אל אלעזר הכהן והוציא אתה אל מחוץ למחנה ושחט אתה לפניו. ולקח אלעזר הכהן מדמה באצבעו והזה אל נכח פני אהל מועד מדמה שבע פעמים. ושרף את הפרה לעיניו את ערה ואת בשרה ואת דמה על פרשה ישרף. ולקח הכהן עץ ארז ואזוב ושני תולעת והשליך אל תוך שרפת הפרה ... ואסף איש טהור את אפר הפרה והניח מחוץ למחנה במקום טהור והיתה לעדת בני ישראל למשמר.


They shall bring you a heifer that is red, perfect, unblemished, and never carried a yoke.  And you shall give it to Elazar the Kohen.  He shall take it outside the camp, and it shall be slaughtered in his presence.  Elazar the Kohen shall take from its blood with his finger, and sprinkle its blood towards the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) seven times.  The heifer shall then be burnt before his eyes, together with its skin, its meat, its blood, and its refuse – they shall all be burned.  And the Kohen shall take cedar wood, hyssop and red thread, and throw them into the burning of the heifer … A pure person shall then gather the ashes of the heifer, and place them outside the camp, in a pure place.  It shall be for the congregation of Israel for safekeeping.[15]



The Midrash[16]  explains the symbolism of these pesukim:

פרה אלו ישראל שנאמר "כי כפרה סוררה סרר ישראל." אדומה אלו ישראל שנאמר "אדמו עצם מפנינים." תמימה אלו ישראל שנאמר "יונתי תמתי." אשר אין בה מום אלו ישראל שנאמר "כלך יפה רעיתי ומום אין בך." אשר לא עלה עליה עול זה דורו של ירמיה שלא קבלו עליהם עולו של הקב"ה. ונתתם אותה אל אלעזר הכהן זה ירמיה שנאמר "מן הכהנים אשר בענתות." והוציא אותה אל מחוץ למחנה ועמה הגלי לבבל. ושחט אותה לפניו "ואת בני צדקיהו שחטו לעיניו ואת עיני צדקיהו עור." ושרף את הפרה לעיניו "וישרוף את בית ה' ואת בית המלך." את עורה ואת בשרה ואת דמה על פרשה ישרוף "ואת כל בתי ירושלים ואת כל הבית הגדול שרף באש." ולמה הוא קורא אותו הבית הגדול, אלא זה בית מדרשו של רבן יוחנן בן זכאי ששם היו מתנין גדולתו של הקב"ה. ולקח זה נבוכדנצר. עץ ארז ואזוב ושני תולעת זה חנניה מישאל ועזריה. והשליך אל תוך שרפת הפרה קטל המון שביבא די נורא. ואסף זה הקב"ה דכתיב ביה "ונשא נס לגוים ואסף נדחי ישראל." איש זה הקב"ה דכתיב ביה "ה' איש מלחמה." טהור זה הקב"ה דכתיב "טהור עינים מראות ברע." את אפר הפרה אלו גליותיהם של ישראל, והניח אל מחוץ למחנה במקום טהור זה ירושלים שהיא טהורה. והיתה לעדת בני ישראל למשמרת, לפי שבעולם הזה ישראל מיטמאין ומיטהרין על ידי כהן, אבל לעתיד לבוא הקב"ה עתיד לטהרן ומה טעם "וזרקתי עליכם מים טהורים וטהרתם וגו'."

“Heifer” refers to Bnei Yisroel, as the possuk states, “Like a straying heifer, Israel has strayed.”[17]  “Red” refers to Bnei Yisroel, as the possuk states, “Redder than rubies.”[18]  “Perfect” refers to Bnei Yisroel, as the possuk states, “My dove, My perfect one.”[19]  “Unblemished” refers to Bnei Yisroel, as the possuk states, “You are entirely beautiful, My beloved.  There is no blemish upon you.”[20]  “Never carried a yoke” refers to the generation of Yermiyah, which refused to carry the yoke of Hashem’s mitzvos.  “And you shall give it to Elazar the Kohen” refers to Yermiyah, who was from the Kohanim of Anasos.  “He shall take it outside the camp” refers to the Babylonian Exile.  “It shall be slaughtered in his presence” refers to the sons of Tzidkiyahu, who were killed before his eyes, after which he was blinded.  “The heifer shall then be burnt before his eyes” refers to the Beis HaMikdash, and the palace of the king.  “Together with its skin, its meat, its blood, and its refuse – they shall all be burned” refers to all the houses of Yerushalayim, and the entire Great House, which were burned by fire.  What was the Great House?  The Beis Midrash of Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai, where Hashem’s greatness was exalted.  “And he shall take” refers to Nevuchadnetzar.  “Cedar wood, hyssop and red thread,” refers to Chananya, Mishael and Azarya.  “And throw them into the burning of the heifer” refers to the multitudes that were killed by fire.  “And he shall gather” refers to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, as the possuk states, “He shall raise a banner to the nations, and He shall gather the lost ones of Israel.”[21]  “A man” refers to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, as the possuk states, “Hashem is a Man of war.”[22]  “Pure” refers to HaKadosh Baruch Hu, as the possuk states, “Pure of eyes, (refraining) from gazing at evil.”[23]  “The ashes of the heifer” refers to the exiles of Israel.  “And he shall place them outside the camp in a pure place” refers to Yerushalayim, which is pure.  “And it shall be for the congregation of Bnei Yisroel as a safekeeping.”  In this world, Bnei Yisroel are rendered impure or pure by a Kohen.  In the future, however, HaKadosh Baruch Hu will purify them Himself, as the possuk states, “And I will throw upon you pure waters, and purify you.”[24]

Rashi says regarding the inexplicable laws of the para aduma, “It is a decree of Mine, that you are forbidden to question.”  From this Midrash we learn that the same applies to the saga of the Jewish people.  At times, we fail to understand Hashem’s providence over His  beloved children.  The Jewish people have suffered torment and oppression, worse than any other nation has ever faced.  We endure exile after tearful exile.  This too is a decree of Hashem, which we must not question.

We must cling with perfect faith to the assurance of the possuk: “You shall know in your heart, that as a person afflicts his son, so does Hashem your God afflict you.”[25]  We suffer affliction – but it is the affliction of love.

We must also know and believe that our suffering atones for our sins.  Thereby, we are made worthy of a brilliant reward, which we will enjoy for all eternity.  All that the Merciful One does is for the best.

We find strength and encouragement in the words of Rav Yaakov Emden (which my Rebbe, the Klausenberger Rav zt”l, would constantly repeat): “By my life, I swear that when I consider the survival of our nation in exile, like a single sheep among seventy wolves, it seems to me a greater miracle than all the miracles our forefathers experienced in Egypt, at the splitting of the Red Sea, and in Eretz Yisroel.”[26]

Indeed, the miraculous survival of Bnei Yisroel in exile is unparalleled in the history of any other nation.  Empires have risen and collapsed.  The era of their might passed, and they were swept away, leaving behind hardly a remnant.  Yet Klal Yisroel survives, with no land of our own; no flag to gather beneath; no army or champion to defend us.  Scattered among all the nations, we still live and endure, and we shall continue to endure forever.

This is nothing but the eternal segula of Klal Yisroel, which Hashem assured us in His Torah, “I passed over you, and saw you wallowing in your blood.  And I said to you, ‘By your blood, you shall live.’”[27]

Avraham Avinu, the founder of our nation, said, “I am but dust and ashes.”[28]  Tosefos[29] explains that dust can never be destroyed.  So too, Avraham prayed that his descendants may be like the dust of the earth, which will never be destroyed.  His prayer stood on our behalf, throughout the length of our bitter exile.

The Maharshal explains, in a slightly different vein, that although men tread upon the dust of the earth, the earth will ultimately swallow them all.  So too, we pray that we may ultimately be victorious over all our tormentors.

May we soon merit the fulfillment of these prayers, with the coming of our Righteous Redeemer, may it be soon and in our days, Amen.

[1] Yoma 14a; Nida 9a; Bamidbar Rabba 19:3 et. al

[2] Koheles 7:23

[3] Midrash; Beis HaLevi, commentary on the Torah.

[4] Bava Basra 99a.

[5] Tehillim 119:80.

[6] Shemos 12:43.

[7] Bamidbar 19:2.

[8] Koheles 7:23.

[9] Rashi, Bamidar 19:2.

[10] Bereishis 21:12.

[11] Bereishis 22:2.

[12] Bereishis 22:12.

[13] Rashi, ibid.

[14] Shabbos 88a.

[15] Bamidbar 19:2-9

[16] Yalkut Shimoni, Parshas Chukas, 759.

[17] Hosheia 4:16

[18] Eicha 4:7

[19] Shir HaShirim 5:2

[20] Shir HaShirim 4:7

[21] Yeshaya 11:12

[22] Shemos 15:3

[23] Chabakuk 1:13

[24] Yechezkel 36:25

[25] Devarim 8:5

[26] Sulam Beis Keil

[27] Yechezkel 16:6

[28] Bereishis 18:27

[29] Berachos 17a