The Red Heifer

by | Jun 27, 2014 | 0 comments

This week’s parsha discusses the mysterious law of “parah adumah”, the red heifer, which is used for purification, but contaminates those who perform the purification. “Zos chukas haTorah”, it says, “This is the law of the Torah” (Num. 19:2). The word “chukah” is used for laws which do not seem rational, as opposed to “mishpat”, for laws such as those against murder and theft, where a rational basis is more evident.

The Or HaChaim asks a question about this present law: Why does the Torah say: “Zos chukas haTorah”? Why not “Zos chukas haparah adumah”, “This is the statute of the red heifer”? He explains: We are to approach ALL the laws in the Torah the way we approach the red heifer. This is strange! Must we accept all the mitzvos in the Torah as being utterly mysterious, and perform them without even trying to understand them?

I think we should try to understand the Or HaChaim in the following way: For any particular mitzvah, we can, and should, try to understand its purpose or purposes, as well as we can, and we may succeed in this to a greater or lesser extent, and decide that the mitzvah makes “good sense”, or whatever; but ultimately, the reason we should perform any mitzvah is because G-d commanded us to. The fact that we understand the Mitzvoh should not detract from the fact that we are performing it because G-d said so. It is in this sense that we should treat all mitzvos like that of the red heifer.

According to the Rambam, a Gentile who performs the seven Noachide laws because they make good sense to him, or because thet fit in with his philosophy anyway, is not counted among the righteous. He should perform them, at bottom, because they have been commanded by G-d. This involves the same idea.

Last Shabbos Shmos, I quoted a midrash, which I would like to repeat here from a different perspective. While Moshe was working as a shepherd for Yisro, the high priest of Midian, he sought his permission to marry his daughter Tsipora. Yisro agreed, provided that Moshe would agree that their firstborn son would be raised to serve as a priest in the Midianite religion. Moshe went away to think it over, and finally agreed. Ultimately he was punished for this, in that his grandson, Gershon’s son, became (according to the midrash) a priest in a pagan cult (identified with a mysterious stranger, Yehonasan ben Gershon ben Menashe, described in Judges 17).

We may ask what on earth could motivate Moshe to agree to such an arrangement, and that is what I dealt with in my previous discussion of this midrash, quoting the Baal HaTurim. Here I want to consider another approach to this issue, from Yisro’s perspective. Yisro’s behavior here is also strange — for he had been won over to monotheism by this time! According to R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz, the previous dean of Mirer Yeshiva, Jerusalem, Yisro’s motivation was that Moshe’s son should gain experience in a false religion, so that he would then, by his own reason, come to appreciate the superiority of Judaism. Actually, the Chidushei HaRim ascribes the same motive to Moshe. And, as we have seen, Yisro and Moshe were punished for this, in that Moshe’s grandson became a priest of a pagan cult.

What was wrong with this reasoning on the part of Yisro and Moshe? They were, in fact, following a widely held educational principle, that we should not force any outlook down our children’s throats, but let them develop their own outlook, in their own time, after a wide exposure to different viewpoints.

However, that is not what Judaism is all about! The reason one should obey the Torah, and get our children to do so, is because, basically, that is G-d’s commandment! Afterwards we can — and should — spend our lives delving into the philosophy of Judaism. But the reason that we should start out following the mitzvos is simply because “Zos chukas haTorah” — it is the law of the Torah.

In honor of the Shloshim of my father who exemplified this principle.

By Rabbi Yaacov Haber

Rabbi Yaacov Haber has been a leading force in Jewish community and Jewish education for over forty years. He lived and taught in the United States, Australia and in Israel. He is presently the Rav of Kehillas Shivtei Yeshurun, a vibrant community in the center of Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel, and serves as the Rabbinic guide to many of its wonderful organisations.


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