5769 - #21



            One could contend that it Is just simply a coincidence that Parshat Parah often falls out on a Shabbat on which we also read parshat Ki Tisa, which contains the story of the Egel Hazahav, the Golden Calf. Yet, in the greater religious context, is there anything that is simply a coincidence? Rashi, Bamidbar 19:2,1 in fact, presents a powerful connection between the parah adumah, the red heifer, and the Egel Hazahav. The difference between a parah and an egel is age; the former is an older cow, the latter is a younger one.2 Rashi, in asserting that the parah adumah was a kapara, an atonement, into the future generations of klal Yisrael for the sin of the Golden Calf, states that, effectively, the Torah has the mother, i.e. the older cow, clean up the mess of the child, i.e. the younger cow. The reading of Parshat Parah on the same Shabbat as we read the story of the Egel Hazahav, thus, has, perhaps, a greater significance. It actually completes the story…and this is how the mess of the Golden Calf was cleaned up over the generations – the parah adumah. Yet how is that so?

            Many connections between the two are actually presented. Rashi declares that the heifer must be red for red is a colour synonymous with sin. He also mentions that the need for the nation to bring a red heifer to Moshe was in compensation for their zest in bringing their gold rings for the making of the Golden Calf.3 Emet L’Yaakov, Bamidbar 19:2, building upon the concept that the Egel Hazahav reintroduced death into the nation,4 maintains that the parah adumah, which purifies someone from tumat meit, the ‘uncleanliness’ associated with death, is, thereby, the appropriate rectifying consequence of the Egel for, if not for this sin, there would never have been another death.5 Rashi, however, uses the comparison between a mother and a child to explain how the parah adumah atones for the Egel Hazahav. The need must be, in order to fully understand the relationship between the two, to explain that connection.

            Kli Yakar, Bamidbar 19:26 explains that whenever there is evil there are two ways to combat it. One is to directly attack the various direct manifestations of the evil. The other is to attack the source, the root of the evil. The latter is more extensive and complete and, as such, is the better method by which to fight evil. This message is personified in the relationship between a child and a mother, the parah and the egel. The way to fully rectify the sin of the Golden Calf is not through the direction of energy against it directly but through directing one’s forces against the root of this evil, personified by the parah, the mother, the source of the child. While this explains the theory behind this connection, what is still needed is the actual formulation of the factors of this connection. What evil led to the Golden Calf? What, then, is the root of this evil that is personified in the concept of the parah?7

            Rashi, Bamidbar 19:28 states that the first parah adumah that Moshe prepared in the desert will also be connected to his name. This is derived from the statement in the verse that the nation is to bring the parah to him. What is important about this direction and its significance in this presentation of the mitzvah is the place of Moshe in the mechanics of the sin of the Golden Calf. It was the perception that Moshe was late in returning from the mountain9 and thus, perhaps, was lost to them that caused the nation to seek a substitute, a Golden Calf. The root of the nation’s motivation for creating the Egel Hazahav would seem to be an unhealthy extended need for Moshe Rabbeinu. Yet, how does the parah adumah correct such a weakness? Bringing the parah to Moshe would, it would seem, only add to the esteem that the nation had for Moshe. The answer may not lie in the very process of the parah adumah but, rather, in the powerful message that is built into this command. Zot chukat haTorah,10 this is a command of the Torah which you will not understand but still must fulfill. Parah adumah challenges the very significance of the human being. A person is limited and the practice of this law declares this reality. Yet, did the nation not also feel the weakness of their very being in seeking a Golden Calf? Isn’t the answer to the problem that led to the creation of the Egel not to be afraid? The problem is that they still felt that Moshe had or was the answer. That is from where the mistake truly arose.

            What does the inability to understand the parah adumah truly teach us? Ultimately, it teaches us to live with the impossibility of understanding everything, or, perhaps, even anything. It teaches us to live with the question, with doubts. Moshe Rabbeinu was a great leader of the nation; again and again, he showed his caring and devotion for them. The nation knew that they were blessed with Moshe as their leader. Moshe would always protect them. But then came this moment when they did not know what happened to Moshe and what, thus, would happen to them. They had a challenge of insecurity, a challenge of not knowing. They went for the easiest answer. The real answer, though, is that we ultimately always live in a situation of not knowing. That is the human condition. The challenge for us is to live with the question. This is the message of the parah adumah and why Moshe himself had to be seen within its gamut.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 Found amongst the collection of Rashi’s comments that are collected at the end of Chapter 19.

2 Sifri, Bamidbar 4 presents the various mishnaic opinions on the specific age demarcation point between the two. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Parah Adumah 1:1 concludes with the view that the parah adumah should ideally be 2 or 3 years old. Within that view, an egel is, thus, 2 and under.

3 Shemot 32:2,3. See, further, Rashi.

4 See, further, T.B. Avodah Zarah 5a. There is a general concept that the Jewish nation, at the receiving of the Torah, reached the state of Adam before partaking of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge and, thus, were similarly not subject to death. The sin of the Calf is thus comparable to the eating of this fruit for it brought death into the world.  

5..See, however, Kli Yakar, Bamidbar 19:2 who further explains the connection by maintaining that the level that was reached at Har Sinai did not mean that death was fully removed from the world but, rather, that all deaths would be through neshika, translated as a kiss from God, which does not render someone as tamei. The result of the sin was thus to re-introduce death in other manners that would render someone tamei thus necessitating the process of the parah adumah.  

6 See, also, Maharal, Gur Aryeh.

7 Kli Yakar, himself, develops an answer built upon the idea that the root of the evil of the Golden Calf was the wealth of the Jews at this time. With all the gold and other valuables that they took with them out of Egypt, there was a motivation to use them leading to the sin of the Calf. I have various difficulties with this approach including that the nation’s generous and zestful involvement in the building of the Mishkan can already be considered a similar atonement. See Shemot 36:5,6.

8 Found in the Rashi comments at their regular place in the format of the text.

9 See Shemot 32:1 with Rashi.

10 Bamidbar 19:2.

 (c) Nishma, 2009


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