Indulgence and Intellect

Naaleh_logo Shiur provided courtesy of


Shira Smiles shiur 2015/5775

Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

            Parshat Chukas begins with a paradigmatic law known as a chok, consistently defined as a mitzvah to which we can ascribe no human, logical reason but which Hashem nevertheless requires of us. One must take a completely pure red cow, without blemish, and upon which a yoke has not come, and bring it to the kohain. The cow is then slaughtered and completely burnt. Its ashes mixed with water and a few other ingredients will then become the medium through which anyone contaminated through contact with the dead can become purified. The illogical element, though, is that while the ashes of the red cow will purify the impure, it will contaminate those who were involved in the preparation of its ashes. This defying of reason is perhaps the main reason parah adumah, the laws of the Red Cow are chosen as the model of a chok, and indeed of our acceptance of every mitzvah in the Torah, whether or not we understand it.

While we are explicitly told that we cannot understand the true purpose of this mitzvah, we nevertheless can study it for meaning for ourselves and our lives. First, it is appropriate to mention that the Medrash states that this mitzvah is meant to expiate the sin of the Golden calf. How? Just as a mother is required to clean up the mess her child makes, so too must the cow clean and purify the mess created by the young cow, the calf. In that case, asks Rabbi Dovid Hofstadter, why not write these laws immediately after the sin of the Golden Calf instead of here? While this was well after the sin of the Golden Calf, the Mechilta says that this law was given at Marah, just three days after Bnei Yisroel left Egypt. Either way, it does not seem to imply a connection to the Golden Calf. In any case, whether it provides a method of atonement for future generations or is specific to one sin (a part of which we all carry within us), the message remains that even when we think we understand a mitzvah, we do not know the real reason behind it. We choose to obey Hashem’s wishes. (For example, the fact that boiling pork will kill trichinosis doesn’t allow us now to eat pork.) As Rabbi Sachs writes in Menachem Zion, the verse says, “This is the law –chok- of theTorah,” not, “This is the law of the Red Cow.”

Since this chok is so closely associated with death, we need to examine the meaning of death. We know that death came into the world as a result of Adam’s sin, but we need to understand what death signifies on a deeper level. Rabbi Kurzer in The Art of Jewish Prayer cites Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto (the Ramch’al) in explaining that death was not a punishment for Adam’s sin, but a direct consequence of his action. When God created Adam, His intention was to create a body and a soul that together would elevate itself while on earth. In order to achieve this goal, body and soul would share certain qualities, including immortality, so that the body would feel equally at home in heaven just as the soul did, and the soul would be comfortable on earth, for the body would always be seeking to elevate itself to the spiritual realm. As Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsberg writes in Avodath Avodah, body and soul could then move easily between the earthly realm and the heavenly realm, much like the Prophet Eliyahu did. If man kept his physical body aligned with his spiritual self, both would remain immortal.

When Adam sinned, continues Rabbi Ginsberg, he created a wall and a disconnect between the body and the soul. He allowed his body to dominate his soul and disobeyed God rather than allowing his soul to inform his body. Thus his body could no longer reach the elevation of the soul, and would therefore die and disintegrate when his soul rose heavenward. Death by definition is the loss of potential. The soul did not live up to its potential and as a natural consequence died and decomposed. In fact, there are recorded instances of tzadikim who, upon being reinterred, were found with their bodies intact, undecomposed, because their bodies were as dedicated to God’s word as were their souls.

The purification for death is not from the red cow but from its ashes, to remind us that we too are but dust and ashes, continues Rabbi Ginsberg. The lesson is to be humble before the Lord, to prioritize, to accept that our bodies, like our souls, are meant to serve our Creator. When Bnei Yisroel were at Sinai and declared, “We will do and we will hear,” they rectified the sin of Adam, and death was vanquished. However, when they took the symbol of their physical existence, their jewelry and wealth, and dedicated it to a physical entity not in compliance with God’s wishes, when they relied on their own logic instead of God’s word, they reintroduced the impurity of God’s sin and brought death back into the world.

This is the lesson we are to learn from the ashes of the red cow. When we have God’s command, we need not know His reason; we must follow and obey. Our reasoning is faulty. Accept first, as we did as a nation at Sinai. Keep our physical aspect as a servant to the spiritual and not the other way around. For example, while people generally need to work, don’t rush through davening to get to the job. If necessary get up earlier. Further, we need to accept limitations on our physical desires, to appreciate that some things, however pleasurable, are just inappropriate for our indulgence because they are at odds with our spiritual growth.

Every week we have an opportunity to elevate the physical to the spiritual and taste immortality. Our Shabbat meals feed our souls as well as our bodies as we disconnect from other intrusions from the mundane and physical world around us. Perhaps we start off slowly as Shabbat begins, but as Shabbat progresses, we become more and more immersed in the spiritual aura of the day, in the connection of body and soul to He Who created both. As the day begins to draw to an end, we try to draw the essence of the “spirit zone” into our being to sustain us for the entire week to come.

We are meant to use our physical and material assets in spiritual service. However, money, like other assets, can definitely be misapplied, even by great men. One of the roots of the sin of the Golden Calf was the wealth Bnei Yisroel acquired as they left Egypt. This wealth they then used sinfully. This truth explains why this passage appears right after the incident of Korach. Korach was a great man. Being from the tribe of Levi, he did not succumb to the lure of the Golden Calf. Yet he is also listed as one of the richest men of his time. His wealth led him to arrogance, and to defiance against Hashem and His ambassador Moshe. Red is the symbol of physical passion. We take that symbol and burn it. This also explains why over the course of our history, as written in Letitcha Elyon, Bnei Yisroel has paid exorbitant sums for a true Parah Adumah, actualizing the lesson that our money is to be used in spiritual pursuits.

Rabbi M. Miller explains this idea from a modern perspective. Today we may not have spiritual idols, but we worship materialism and physicality. We expend our energy in acquiring wealth and possessions, and feeding our stomachs (and our egos) and our pleasure, rather than in self improvement. One can truly be in a constant rat race for material possessions. But one can also be in a race of religious pursuits and doing chessed. Rabbi Dovid Hofstadter puts an interesting twist on this possibility. Citing the last verse of Psalm 23, “May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life …,” Rabbi Hofstadter notes that one can feel overwhelmed by the constant appeals on his time and money. But if I am to be pursued, let it be not by material problems, but by my involvement with good deeds and loving kindness.

Before we left Egypt, Hashem told us to borrow gold and silver utensils from the Egyptians. In truth, we were not borrowing these items from the Egyptians as we and they knew these would not be returned. Rabbi Frand points out, though, that we were borrowing these items. We were borrowing them from Hashem to Whom everything belongs. If we retain that mindset, that our possessions do not really belong to us but to Hashem, that we are merely caretakers of Hashem’s wealth, we will be less tempted to try to amass more than we need or to use what we are entrusted with inappropriately.

Our obsession with the physical world leads us to think, however momentarily, that when a person dies he ceases to exist, writes Rabbi Schwab. We forget that the body is only the vessel that holds one’s true essence, one’s neshama, one’s soul. The red cow symbolizes vitality and physical life, yet we reduce it to ashes. The ashes are mixed with water, the symbol of the eternal soul, and sprinkled on the one who has been defiled by contact with a corpse to teach him the primacy of the spirit. It was the perversion of values that led to the sin of the Golden Calf, the thought that something physical can substitute for the Eternal.

We have already discussed how Adam’s sin brought death to the world. But what motivated Adam to sin? Rabbi Roberts in Through the Prism of Torah delves into Adam’s thought process. Adam felt that this blissful state in Eden was too simple. He thought that if he actually engaged with the yetzer horo, he would triumph and elevate himself to a more worthy position. Although his motive was laudable, he disobeyed God’s explicit command. He considered his own reasoning to be above God’s reasoning.

Now one can understand how the laws of the Red Heifer can atone for the sin that brought death to the world. We cannot fathom the reason that something which will purify will also contaminate anyone who prepares it. The contradiction defies human logic. Yet now we will obey God’s will and suppress our own power of reason in the process and thereby atone for Adam’s sin. As Rabbi Igbui writes in Chochmat Hamatzpun, this is the lesson of the parah adumah, that we don’t have to understand everything in order to obey. Sometimes, like a parent telling her child, the reason is just because Hashem said so. We must follow Hashem with temimus, completely and with integrity, and the red heifer must also be tomim, completely red. Similarly, we need to follow the advice and dictates of our rabbis with temimus, without rationalization. As Rabbi Bick points out inChayei Moshe, the Red Heifer is not so much an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf as it is a means of returning us to our former status of accepting Hashem’s authority with temimus, and that acceptance brings atonement, writes the Chasam Sofer.

The contrasts in the laws poroh adumah are brought into focus in the teachings of Rabbi Goldwicht, as related in Yalkut Lekach Tov. In the sin of the Golden calf, the people took an inanimate object, the gold, and tried to create an animal by passing it through fire. Instead they created destruction. The Red Heifer is a live animal that is passed through fire that seems to destroy it, yet it is the means of creating purity. Fire can create or destroy, but we can’t always rely on our own reasoning to determine which is which. Only Hashem ultimately knows the difference. When we rely on Hashem’s reason completely, almost naively, with temimus, we bring ourselves closer to God and begin to recreate ourselves as we were at Gan Eden before the sin and again at Sinai.