Parashas Parah

This week, the final Torah reading consists of a special selection describing the parah adumah (red heifer) procedure, where a completely red and unblemished heifer that never bore a yoke is slaughtered and burned, and the ashes are used for purifying people who became defiled through contact with a human corpse. The description of the procedure is introduced with the following preface (Bamidbar 19:2): “This is the statute (chukas) of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded.” The parah adumah procedure is the classic example of a chok – a Torah law whose rationale is hidden from us, and which we must simply accept as a Divine edict. Regarding this procedure, the Midrash describes Hashem declaring (Yalkut Shimoni, Nach 989; cf. Bamidbar Rabbah 19:1): “I have legislated a statute and issued a decree, and you are not permitted to harbor reservations about it.”
In Sefer HaMiddos, Shaar Avodas HaElokim, chapter 1, the Maggid elaborates on this idea. In Vayikra 26:3, Hashem declares that if we follow His statutes, we will thrive. The Maggid says that we should regard all of the mitzvos as statutes to be followed simply because Hashem ordered us to do so, without regard to the beneficial effects that we may see in them. Thus, the Mishnah in Berachos 33b rules that if a prayer leader says “Your mercies extend to the bird’s nest,” we silence him. The reason we do so, according to one opinion in the Gemara, is that the prayer leader’s words suggest that Hashem gave us the mitzvah of shiluach ha-kein (sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs or chicks) out of His compassion for the birds, whereas the mitzvos should be regarded as pure Divine decrees designed to refine those obey them. This is true even of Torah’s civil laws – for example, the Torah prohibits stealing not to protect the would-be victim (Hashem could do this in other ways), but rather to prevent the would-be thief from damaging his soul.
Our subservience to Hashem is most clearly shown when we perform a mitzvah without knowing the reason behind it. When we perform a mitzvah whose reason we understand, it could always be that we are doing so not out of a desire to fulfill Hashem’s word, but rather out of our own affinity for the mitzvah act. But when we perform a mitzvah whose reason is hidden from us, it is clear that we are doing so simply out of a desire to follow Hashem’s directives.
The Maggid teaches further that we must perform all the mitzvos exactly as handed down to us, without subjecting them to our own judgment and taking the liberty to make additions, omissions, or changes. At the end of its account of creation, the Torah declares (Bereishis 1:31): “And God saw all that He had done, and, behold, it was very good.” The Midrash remarks (Yalkut Shimoni, Torah 16; cf. Bereishis Rabbah 9:10): “‘Good’ – this is the angel of life. “‘Very’ – this is the angel of death.” The Maggid interprets this Midrash as saying that any attempt to introduce improvements to the mitzvos is bound to produce a bad result. A person who tries to tinker with the mitzvos is like a craftsman’s toddler son who tries to tinker with his father’s work – some damage is sure to ensue.
In Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8, the Midrash says that the red heifer atones for the sin of the golden calf. In a number of places in his commentaries, the Maggid explains, following the Kuzari, that the calf was not made for idolatrous purposes. Rather, the Jewish People panicked when Moshe did not return from Mount Sinai when they expected, and they rushed to develop an alternative mechanism for connecting with Hashem. The people had engaged in tinkering, introducing a new form of worship that Hashem did not mandate. The remedy for this error was the law of the red heifer – a law that calls for us simply to follow Hashem’s word, without any understanding of the reason behind it.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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