This week's parshah opens with the mitzvah of parah adumah, the red heifer. I always warn my kids not to write their divrei Torah about the first thing that happens in the parsha, because then I get suspicious they haven't read the whole parsha.
So you may all get very suspicious when I say I'll be talking a bit about the parah adumah. This was a red cow, pristine, never worked in the field. The kohanim burnt the cow and mixed the ashes into water which was then sprinkled on a person who had come in contact with a dead body. That person then became tahor translated as "clean," but that's a bad translation.
Biblical concepts of tumah and taharah are tricky in an age obsessed with hygiene. Do women become "unclean" just by menstruating? Can dunking in a mikveh make you more "clean" than your nice, shiny Jacuzzi at home?
I once heard that tumah and taharah do not revolve around cleanliness, but around loss of life. Menstruation always does mean a small loss of potential life; ask anyone who's trying to conceive a baby. Because Judaism affirms life, and because life is all about connection to Hashem, even a small loss has an impact on our soul.
So It's not about clean and dirty. It's about our connection to Hashem. The mikveh does it where a bathtub doesn't. The parah adumah does it where Elsie the Cow simply can't.
What every commentator I've seen picks up on is right there in the name of the parsha: Chukas. A chok, as you have probably already heard, is a law that can't possibly be understood.
There are dozens of chukim in the Torah shatnez, not wearing wool and linen together. Nobody knows why. Milk and meat? It's not about being kind to mother goats it's a chok.
The parah adumah is an especially tricky chok because there's an inherent contradiction: the person who mixes the ashes then becomes tumah, even while the person who gets the mixture sprinkled on him becomes tahor. Interesting stuff.
According to a midrash, Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon), the wisest person ever, was eventually able to figure out rational explanations for all the chukim in the Torah except the Parah Adumah.
Sounds a lot like teasing: "You wouldn't understand." But Hashem would never do that!
The other day, joking around with one of my kids, I said, "there's no good way to say, 'you wouldn't understand.'" I tried it in all different voices: it always sounds like an insult. Why?
There is this drive in all of us that we must know. We have to find out. It's the Curious George thing what does this button do? Even if it's rocket science, brain surgery, any of those hard things I'll never do myself: maybe I can't understand all of it, but certainly you can simplify and I'm sure I'll catch on.
When someone says "you wouldn't understand," that's an insult: they don't believe we'd comprehend even the "for Dummies" version.
Hashem would never have said that; he loved us too much. But when it comes to the parah adumah, we're not supposed to understand that's the whole point.
The mitzvah of parah adumah begins with the words "zos chukas haTorah" - this is the chok of the Torah. But why does it say "the chok of the Torah" the entire Torah and not just the "chok of Tumah" or the "chok of the parah adumah?"
I found two explanations. Rabbi Yissocher Frand points out that when we first accepted the Torah at Har Sinai, we said "Naaseh v'Nishmah" we will do and we will listen; in that order.
This chok, says Rabbi Frand, is the "chok of the entire Torah" because it reminds us of that promise; that every mitzvah the Nike mitzvah: just do it, even if you don't completely understand.
Rabbi Manis Friedman goes a little farther and adds that "when it comes to doing mitzvos, even the mitzvos that make sense and are rational, we should do because G-d decreed it and not because of the appeal that it has to our intelligence."
Maybe because, as I've discovered with my kids, they usually only ask why so they can argue some more.
Familiarity breeds contempt: the Ramban suggests that if you knew the entire Torah, you might use that knowledge to rationalize doing whatever you wanted.
This chok reminds us that Torah's not about us; it's about Hashem and His wisdom: we wouldn't understand.
So is it really an insult? No! It's Hashem telling us, "I am giving you this gift which is so much greater than yourselves: That's how much I love you."
This mitzvah is the greatest chok because it gives us our nearest glimpse of Hashem himself; the Godly imagination.
Why tie all that earth-shattering stuff in with the parah adumah, one little red cow? Today, it's an obscure, little-known mitzvah, but when the bais Hamikdash stood, the parah adumah was the only way a person could fully restore their connection with God after coming in contact with a dead body. Pretty major.
Remember, too: humans didn't even know death until we Adam and Chava tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge. Knowledge meaning, we needed to know WHY. About everything! What does this button do?
So along comes death. And tumah, because when a person dies, they lose their tzelem Elokim, their Godly image. The tiny spark of Godly imagination is gone from their body.
That affects us to the core; when we are close with someone who has died, we too lose our way; we die a little. And we desperately need to get that back, to heal our relationship with the Almighty through the parah adumah.
These days, we can't feel it the way we should, because we are already in exile, removed from our full, day-to-day, physical relationship with the Almighty.
The bais Hamikdash is gone, and this week, on Shiva Asar b'Tammuz, we'll start the three week "shiva" to mourn how far we are, here, from our ideal state as yidn, holy Jewish sparks.
Rabbi Manis Friedman said on Facebook a couple of weeks ago, "Here's the secret to happiness: know that you are getting more than you deserve. If you are feeling that you are getting what you deserve, you have a sense of justice, but not a reason to get up and dance, to rejoice. But if you are feeling you are getting more than you deserve, that is a cause for gratitude, which is cause for joy."
In the parah adumah, in this chok which represents the entire Torah, in the Torah which represents God himself, Hashem's imagination and the sparks of it which inhabit each and every one of us we are getting so much more than we deserve as individuals.
Miriam, too. She gave us so much more than we deserved; she was the spiritual leader of the Jewish women and the source of water for all bnei Yisrael. Did we ever stop and thank her for the water, or did we just assume that we deserved it?
In this week's parsha, bnei Yisrael weep for her death, but they also have to go thirsty for a while, to physically suffer, to drive home the realization of what a gift she was so much more than we deserved!
This Thursday, we weep for the bais Hamikdash, for the Yerushalayim that we have lost.
I'll be very honest: I've "done" Tisha b'Av before, but having been in Israel so, so briefly this year this may be the first year that I really feel Tisha b'Av.
At least, that's what I promised Hashem, on my "personal Tisha b'Av", sitting on the plane, long past midnight, flying home alone with a screaming baby on my lap, to help bury my father. I was so close and it was torn away. We were all once so, so close to Hashem, and we can be that close again.
May our sorrow over what we've lost help us see all of Hashem's tremendous gifts, and ultimately, lead to our own redemption.
Hashiveinu hashem v'nashuva chadesh yameinu k'kedem. Return to us, Hashem and we will come back. Please give us this chance to come back.
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