The calendar this year has us reading “Parshat Parah” (Bamidbar 19, which speaks of the Red Heifer) in the week following our reading of the tale of the Golden Calf (in Ki Tissa).
Is there a connection?
One might say there need not be a connection, simply because Parshat Parah is the next in line of the “4 Parshas” that round out this time of year. As the Aruch Hashulchan puts it (685:1), “[we read Parah] because the burning of the heifer was done close to the month of Nissan in order that people could participate in the Paschal Lamb in purity.”
And yet, there is a connection between the two, as pointed out by Rashi in Bamidbar 19:22. There Rashi writes that the “Red Heifer is a parable to the son of a maid who soiled the palace of the king. They say, ‘Let his mother come and clean up his mess!’ So does the cow come and atone for the calf.”
The source Rashi is quoting is the Medrash Tanchuma on the parsha, when Rabbi Aivo explains why of all sacrifices which are generally male animals, the Red Heifer is a female.
The midrash recounts a tale of Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai and a “stranger” who confronted him, saying the ritual of the cow makes no sense. Rabbi Yochanan asked him, “What do you do when a person has been contained by an evil spirit?” The stranger described a low-key form of an exorcism in which something is put on fire below the person and water is sprinkled to get the evil spirit out.
Rabbi Yochanan was flabbergasted: “Listen to what you are saying!” In other words, each method is equally strange to an outsider. Rabbi Yochanan explained to his students after the non-Jew left, “It is not the dead who brings on tumah, and it is not the heifer who purifies. Rather it is G-d who made rules and laws and decrees and we are not to disregard or break them.”
The Red Heifer is therefore a mitzvah that serves the purpose of relieving us of a status of spiritual impurity, both of which (mitzvah and spiritual purity/impurity) are concepts created by G-d for His reasons.
But there’s a problem. Both the midrash and, subsequently, Rashi imply that the Red Heifer came about to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. But it is Rashi himself who says that one of the mitzvot that was taught to the people at Marah, even before the giving of the Torah, and certainly before the Golden Calf incident, was the mitzvah of Parah Adumah (Shmot 15:25)!
How do we reconcile Rashi saying that Parah Adumah was taught before the Torah was given with his suggesting that the Parah Adumah serves as an atonement for the Golden Calf?
Some suggest that there is an editor’s mistake in the Rashi, because the Talmud includes “Kibud Av,” honoring one’s parents, as one of the commandments discussed in Marah. Perhaps Rashi had written the abbreviation for Kibud Av (Kaf Alef), which was mistaken to read “Peh Alef,” and was thus transcribed as “Parah Adumah.” [The Kaf and Peh are easily mistakable, particularly in some styles of handwriting.]
Others reject such a notion, arguing that in Marah the people were taught “Chok u’mishpat” — a statute and a judgment — and Parah Adumah is the classic example of a Chok.
And so, our question remains.
As a parent, have you ever decided that a punishment or (as we call them) a “loss of privilege” was in order? And then, you found out that something else that you had been unaware of had also taken place and you then included the new item in the “reason” for your choice of action? I certainly have.
Making the Parah Adumah atone for the Golden Calf is called “poetry in motion,” because it fits so nicely into the narrative of what transpired after Parah Adumah was first taught to the people.
More importantly, at this time of year leading into Pesach, perhaps the lesson of Parah Adumah can be one of a re-commitment to the Torah “just because.”
The Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai tale reminds us that we don’t need to be geniuses. Not everything we see or do has to make complete sense. There are some things about the Torah and about Judaism that are hard to explain rationally and may leave us with questions. Do we therefore throw all of Judaism under the bus because of one question?
I have met too many people who have found one contradiction, or one thing that bothers them so much, that all of Judaism is therefore rejected.
The Parah Adumah teaches us that if at first something is taught “just because,” eventually we will find that its purpose actually makes a whole lot of sense when it comes to atone for a major faux pas that almost destroyed our nation.