Parah Adumah – It’s Never as Bad, or as Evil, as It Seems

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-zt”l

How does Jewish sin differ from sin in general?

I have recorded a homiletic interpretation … of R. Moshe Hadarshan … And have them take for you: … just as they took off their own golden earrings for the calf, so shall they bring this [cow] from their own [assets] in penance. A red cow: This is comparable to the baby of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace [with fecal matter]. They said, “Let his mother come and clean up the mess.” Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf.] … [Midrash Aggadah and Tanchuma Chukath 8]

–Rashi Bemidbar19:22

A Kohen who converted to an idolatrous religion should not “raise his palms” in the priestly blessing. Others say that if he repented then he may perform the priestly blessing.

–Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 128:37

But if he actually worshipped an idol, even if he was forced to do so and even if he subsequently repented, he may not perform the priestly blessing.

–Be’er Heitev ibid footnote 63

Approach the altar: [The salient corners of the altar reminded Ahron of the juvenile horn-buds of the Calf] because Ahron was embarrassed and frightened of approaching [the altar] Moshe said to him: “Why are you ashamed? You have been chosen for this [role]!”

– Torath Kohanim on VaYikra 9:7

Fire came forth from before HaShem and consumed them [Nadav and Avihu], such that they died before HaShem. Then Moshe said to Ahron, “This is precisely what HaShem meant, [when He said], ‘I will be sanctified through those near to Me (Shemos 29:43) … “

–VaYikra 10:2,3

מוֹצִיא מִזָּלוֹת יְקָרוֹת. מַתִּיר מֵאֲסוּרוֹת מֻתָּרוֹת. נוֹתֵן מִטְּמֵאוֹת טְהוֹרוֹת
HaShem brings forth the priceless from the worthless, He allows the permissible from the prohibited, He produces the pure from the impure.

Piyut-“Yotzros” for Parshas Parah

The mei chatas-the waters whose main ingredient were the ashes produced from immolating the carcass of the Parah Adumah-the Red Heifer, are the only means to gain purity after contracting impurity through contact with the dead- tuma’as meis. A person who has become tamei meis may not consume the korban Pesach-the Passover sacrifice. (Or, for that matter, any consumable sacrifices.) When the Bais HaMikdash-the Temple in Jerusalem, stood those who were tme’ei meis would undergo the mei chatas purification process required to enable them to offer their korban Pesach.  Nowadays, as the Bais HaMikdash lies in ruins, the four special parshiyos/ maftir readings that precede Pesach are all meant as a preparation for the holiday.  So we can easily understand that it is apropos to read Parshas Parah at this time of the year.

However, during each of the shalosh regalim-pilgrimage holidays, multiple offerings had to be sacrificed and consumed in a state of ritual purity.  This being the case, the Biskovitzer asks: Why is the reading of Parshas Parah limited to pre-Pesach preparation?  Logically, we ought to be reading it before Shavous and Sukkos as well. The insights that he and other members of the Izhbitzer school provide by way of answering this question reveal a profound and deep-seated difference between Jewish sin, and sin in general.

In Torah literature the Parah Adumah is known as THE Chukas haTorah, THE (most) irrational mitzvah of the Torah (preceded with the definite article.)  In a broad sense the entire body of Torah law covering the rules of purity and impurity contains only chukim-irrational mitzvos.  After all, the states of ritual purity or impurity rise above sensory perception.  We can neither see taharah-purity nor smell tumah-impurity.  Similarly, there seems to be no rhyme or reason when trying to connect the dots between cause and effect in either tumah or taharah or in endeavoring to understand their various levels.  But what makes the Parah Adumah a category of chok unto itself is the conundrum of it being a factor causing both tumah and taharah.  Those who prepare and handle it contract a low level of tumah while those who were sprayed with the mei chataas regain a state of purity after being in the thrall of the most powerful and fundamental form of tumah.

Tumah is identified with sin while having attained atonement and rapprochement is associated with taharah.  As such, the conflicted nature of the Parah Adumah serves as a metaphor for the convergence of sin and repentance; of merit and the demerits; of kilkul-spiritual ruination, and tikkun– it’s repair and restoration. The Parah Adumah itself is seen as atoning for the greatest of all sins; the Golden Calf.  It is the mother that comes to clean up the mess that her baby left in the king’s palace.

While the Calf is the “child” and the Red Heifer the “parent” oddly enough, in this case, it is the child that gives birth to the parent.  Absent the Golden Calf there would never have been a Red Heifer. The Biskovitzer maintains that the message of the Parah Adumah is that Jewish sins even the most catastrophic an egregious of Jewish sins; are not all bad.  A weed cannot produce a tasty apple.  If we were to see a delicious apple hanging from a noxious weed we would be forced to conclude that there’s more to this weed than meets the eye.  While it may look and smell like a weed, it must contain some genetic material capable of producing such delicious and nourishing fruit.

If ever there was a sin, a metaphysical weed that looked “all bad” it was the Golden Calf.  Yet when considered on a deeper level it was motivated by something virtuous. K’lal Yisrael, the Jewish People wanted (a) god to lead them.  Ultimately HaShem agreed to this and said “and they should make a sanctuary for me and I will cause my Divine Indwelling to be among them.” (Shemos 25:8) And when they besieged Ahron to become their agent to serve/ worship and to build the altar this too remained as a permanent fixture in the Divine service of HaShem, as Ahron became the Kohen Gadol.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, when listing many examples of spiritual/metaphysical darkness that are the necessary prerequisites to the light that follows, goes so far as to say that the sin of the Golden Calf was the primary cause of the construction of the Mishkan and that the sin of Nadav and Avihu was the primary cause of the Mishkan’s holiness.  Still, the Lubliner Kohen pointedly reminds us that, while the light is contained in the darkness and that spiritual purity and sanctity are present in potentia in every Jewish sin, that sin nevertheless remains, well, sinful … and something to be ashamed of. (cp Taanis 11A Tosafos D”H Amar Shmuel). Otherwise, why would it be prohibited to remind those Ba’alei Teshuvah-masters of repentance, who were motivated to repent by the love of HaShem, of their earlier misdeeds?  While we know that repentance motivated by such love has the power to transform premeditated, and even malicious, sins into zechuyos, merits/ mitzvos, there is nonetheless something untoward and unseemly about the original acts which still appear as sins in the historical record.

This explains Ahron’s reticence and sense of shame and apprehension when he first approached the altar to do the Divine service.  Ahron had done absolutely nothing and exerted no efforts to attain the Office of Kohen Gadol.  On the contrary, his culpability in the sin of the Golden Calf would have seemed to torpedo any chances that he had to serve in the Mishkan.  The halachah states that a Kohen who worshipped idols is disqualified from serving again as a Kohen to HaShem, even after returning to the fold and repenting. How much more so for the “enabler” of this foulest idolatry of the Jewish People? It was only his profound sense of shame over his involvement in the sin of the Golden Calf and his feelings of unbridgeable distance and alienation from HaShem that, paradoxically, brought him closer to HaShem than anyone else. To paraphrase the paytan-liturgical poet, of the Parshas Parah yotzer vis-à-vis Ahron;  HaShem brought forth the premier servant from the most mutinous rebel.

The Biskovitzer concludes that while ritual purification from contact with the dead is required in order to consume any of the korbanos we read Parshas Parah before Pesach because they convey the identical message.  During the Exodus from Egypt the ministering angels “challenged” HaShem’s salvation of the Jews and simultaneous destruction of the Egyptians by saying; “these and those are both idolaters.”  Yet, during the night of the slaying of the firstborn, HaShem “passed over.” He, kivyachol-as it were, leapfrogged from one Egyptian occupied home to the other while leaving the Jews occupying the homes in the middle, unscathed.  On a level so profound, deep and imperceivable that even the angels could not grasp it, there was, indeed, a difference between Jewish idolatry, and the concomitant descent into the 49 gates of impurity, and the idolatry of the Egyptians.  While both Egyptians and Jews worshipped idols, the Jews had suffered terribly for k’vod Shamayim-for god’s greater Glory.  Jewish idolatry was not all bad, somehow the purity and sanctity of Mattan Torah-the revelation at Sinai inhered in the degradation, defilement and, yes, even in the idolatry of the Jewish slavery experience in Egypt.

~adapted from Neos Desheh Parshas Parah
Takanas HaShavin 5 page 21
Resisei Laylah 24 pages 3031

This post is An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

6 comments on “Parah Adumah – It’s Never as Bad, or as Evil, as It Seems

  1. Rabbi Schwartz – Thank you so much for your reply. I’ve been enjoying reading and re-reading it.

    I had not read the texts prior to commenting (your intuition was correct). Now that I did, I see how Rav Tzadok directly addresses our inability to access that holy/good in our sins – in your words:

    “…the sensibilities that we are endowed with in the here-and-now world are incapable of sensing the truth of zdonos naasin lo zechuyos on a visceral level.”

    If we are unable even after teshuva me’ahava, the awareness is certainly beyond us prior to teshuva…..Another way the presence of Hashem is concealed in this world.

    But doesn’t Rav Tzadok say in the selection from Takanat Hashavin that this awareness becomes accessible during tefilah? I wonder what that means/ how that works / what that’s like….(Or maybe I’m not reading it correctly.)

    You raise some really thought-provoking points – re: the source for Aharon’s teshuva and the hatov ve’hametiv bracha…and I like the mashal re: the parliament. It reminds me of 2 things I heard – Rav Nachman would tell his chassidim, “If you’re going to eat chazir, don’t let the juices drip down your beard.” And, relatedly, Rav Nachman said, “I’m not saying my chassidim don’t sin – they also fall to sin – but the malachim [that are created by their sins] don’t have arms or legs.”

    In light of your article and your comments, I think these 2 teachings are encouraging us to give voice to those naysayers during the actual moment of sin – to facilitate their expression even when they are being outvoted.

    I will email you a photo of the specific part of that chapter in likutei moharan I was referring to.

    I am very grateful for your investment in sharing this Torah with us. Thank you

  2. Jesse- Shkoyach for your thoughtful comment.

    On the one hand of our sages teach us at the sole reason that the generation of the wilderness tripped up with the sin of the Golden Calf was in order to teach us lessons in pan-societal repentance . So there ought to be take-away lessons that we should be able to integrate into our own Avodah.

    On the other hand the precise message of these Izhbitzer school teachings are kind of tricky and slippery .

    In my presentation I tried to strike an upbeat tone and emphasize the parts that concentrate on the positive and good aspects that inhere in every Jewish sin .

    I don’t know if or how much you looked at the original sources sources but the Lubliner Kohen is very emphatic about the fact that even after teshuvah m’ahavah the original act remains a sin and that to remind the baal teshuvah m’ahavah of his earlier misdeeds would still constitute onoas devarim-verbal abuse because the sensibilities that we are endowed with in the here-and-now world are incapable of sensing the truth of zdonos naasin lo zechuyos on a visceral level.

    I am not a 100% sure but I believe that the Kohen asserts this (actually, proves it) as part of the larger, general distortion of our perceptions of reality that derive from Hester Panim and the ongoing presence of Amalek. To me (and I could be wrong) it is of a piece with the idea of having to make two separate b’rachos for good news and for bad news. In the here-and-now world is a person would make the brachah of hatov v’haMeitiv upon hearing catastrophic news he would’ve pronounced a brachah l’vatalah even if his name was Nachum Ish Gamzu.

    Here is another thing that I don’t quite grasp about the Lubliner Kohens teaching : if I’m reading it right he is presuming that Ahron was not only a baal teshuvhah about the sin of the golden calf but that is repentance was motivated by love . I may have missed something but is there any parshah in Chumash or divrei Chaza”l that would indicate that on a personal level he had done any teshuvah for the golden calf before being installed in the Office of Kohein Gadol? Moreover As the first step in the Teshuvah process is remorse and regret where do we see that he regretted his participation? Would it even be possible for Ahron to have “regretted” his participation? The baseline definition of regret is that if I had to do things over I would’ve done them differently. Would Ahron have done anything differently ? Under the given the circumstances he did the best that he could in order to save the Jewish people. I think that the same question can be asked of any aveirah lishmah, which again, the Lubliner Kohen maintains one must do teshuvah for.

    The best that I can offer in terms of integrating the lesson into our own Avodah is this:

    I once learned in the Sefer Pachad Yitzchok that the way the Teshuvah dynamic works is as follows: The sinner does not sin wholeheartedly. Even in the midst of a sin or in the heat of passion the sinner is conflicted and ambivalent. If his mind and heart were a parliament there would be at least one nay vote, possibly many more. After the sin’s committed and the heat of the moment has passed it is precisely these naysayers within the sinners neshamah that reassert themselves and begin the process of regret and repentance. “I told you not to do it at the moment that you were doing it. Now that you’ve ignored me and done it … can’t you see how right I was?”

    Teshuvah does not mean that the scales fall off our eyes, that we have an epiphany and suddenly realize in the present that what we did in the past was wrong and evil. Somewhere deep within us there was a small still voice, (perhaps it was even bound and gagged at the moment of the sin) warning us not to do it and that,as far as it was concerned, this act was being perpetrated under protest.

    Maybe the crushing weight of guilt over the sin that so immobilizes us derives from our not really believing any of this. The Yetzer Hara desperately wants us to believe that we committed the sin wholeheartedly down to the very last fiber of our being. If we did, then it becomes impossible to regret the sin without regretting the sinner. We become completely down on ourselves, think of ourselves as rotten and incorrigible beings and, more often than not, throw up our hands in complete and abject resignation.

    I think that the main point of this Izhbitzer school teaching that we may be able to incorporate into our own Avodah is to be able to look at the historical record to gain understanding that not only is a person (or a tzibbur) conflicted at the moment of committing the sin but they even the those members of his internal parliament that voted on behalf of committing the sin did not all share the same agenda. That some of those who voted yes were also members of the “good “party and not of the “evil” party. (politics make strange bedfellows) If we come to believe this it becomes considerably easier to believe that there were naysayers even at the moment of sin.

    By the way I tried looking up the Likutei Mohran but it was too lengthy and I never got to the ratzo VaShov part. With Pesach coming, I’m very stressed for time but if your email me and more specific mareh makom I’d like to have a look at it.

  3. Rabbi Schwartz- Thank you so much. I’m wondering whether you can tell us your ideas re: how to incorporate this into our own avodah- into the way we deal with our own shortcomings…..Personally, when I feel crushed by the weight of my shortcomings, and I try to do teshuva, it’s comforting to know that the falls are part of the journey, that they stem from something my soul is calling out for. This way of thinking provides a kind of safety net, so I’m not crushed by the weight of sin, so I can move forward. But how can we take it one step further? How can we ascertain what it is our souls are calling out for- that “virtuous” something? If we were able to do that, wouldn’t it make teshuva an even richer and deeper experience? Wouldn’t it also help guide us/direct us in our efforts to correct our ways?
    I wonder if this is part of what Rav Nachman is referring to in likutei moharan chapter 6 where he discusses “baki b’ratzo, baki b’shov,” revealing k’vod shamayim in the depths- perhaps in the sin itself. In that context, it seems this is an essential part of teshuva- not merely a bonus or a byproduct of the process.

    Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

    i’ve read that parsha so many times; your article explained so much.
    shabbat shalom

  5. what about shalmei chagigah? Also korbanos chovah? Did you click on the link? Biskovitzers question … not mine.

  6. Why is the reading of Parshas Parah something unique to pre-Pesach preparation? Logically we ought to be reading it before Shavous and Sukkos as well.

    Very simply, The Korban Pesach was REQUIRED eating, so much so that there was an entire Parsha of Pesach Sheni. Not so by Shavuos and Succos.

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