Vayikahel ha’am al Aharon vayomru eilav kum aseh lanu elohim (Shemos 32:1)
This week is Parashas Parah, in which we read about the mitzvah of parah adumah. Rashi writes (Bamidbar 19:2) that Hashem declared this mitzvah to be a “chok” — a Divine decree with no readily apparent rationale — regarding which we are not permitted to inquire or attempt to understand. Shlomo Hamelech declared (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3) that after using all of his intellectual capabilities to try to understand this mitzvah, he was still unable to do so.
Yet Rashi also writes in the name of Harav Moshe Hadarshan that the parah adumah served as atonement for the sin of the golden calf, and he proceeds to explain how each detail of its laws specifically atoned for a corresponding aspect of the golden calf. After writing that the parah adumah is the quintessential chok, the purpose of which even Shlomo couldn’t grasp, how can Rashi proceed to explain the rationale behind the mitzvah in great detail? Secondly, in what way did this mitzvah specifically effect atonement for the golden calf?
The Beis Halevi explains that when the Jewish people incorrectly concluded that Moshe had died, they were distraught by the lack of an intermediary to lead them and teach them Hashem’s will. They yearned to build a place for the Divine Presence to rest among them to fill the void left by Moshe’s perceived death. Because their intentions in building the calf were for the sake of Heaven, they selected Aharon to lead the project so that it would succeed. If so, what was their mistake, and why did their plans go so awry?
The Beis Halevi explains that each mitzvah contains within it deep, mystical secrets that have tremendous effects in the upper worlds when performed properly. At Mount Sinai, the Jewish people erred in thinking that if they discovered the Kabbalistic concepts behind a mitzvah, they could perform it based on their understanding even without being commanded. As a result, although their intentions were proper, they lacked the Divine assistance that comes only from performing His will, and they ended up sinning with the golden calf.
The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 51:8) teaches that the Mishkan also served as atonement for the golden calf. The Beis Halevi explains that because the sin of the golden calf was caused by doing something without a command from Hashem to do so, the Torah repeatedly emphasizes in Parashas Pekudei (e.g., 39:5) that every aspect of the Mishkan was made exactly as Hashem commanded Moshe.
With this introduction, we can answer our original questions. The mitzvah of parah adumah is indeed a chok, the logic of which escaped Shlomo and certainly Harav Moshe Hadarshan. If so, what does he mean when he says that the red heifer comes to atone for the golden calf?
As we now understand that the root of the sin of the golden calf was the Jews’ attempt to “outsmart” Hashem by doing something that He didn’t command them to, the ultimate rectification of this sin is to completely subordinate one’s intellect to Hashem’s dictates. This was manifested by their willingness to perform a chok, a mitzvah that appears to make no sense but which we do solely because Hashem commanded it.
Q: Rashi writes (34:29) that Moshe descended from Mount Sinai with the second set of Tablets on Yom Kippur. How was he permitted to carry the Tablets from the mountain, which is a private domain, to the Jewish camp, a public domain, on Yom Kippur?
A: The Rivash maintains that the Jewish people weren’t obligated to observe the Yamim Tovim until after the Mishkan was erected. In addressing a different question, the Ramban writes that Moshe descended from the mountain with the Tablets on the day after Yom Kippur. The Panim Yafos answers that Hashem gave the Tablets to Moshe after he began walking, which is Biblically permitted due to the fact that Moshe didn’t uproot the object (Shabbos 5a), which is known as akirah. Verse 34:29 can be interpreted as saying that only after Moshe began descending the mountain were the Tablets in his hand, which hints to this explanation.
The Chasam Sofer argues that just as one may desecrate Shabbos to save another person’s life and enable him to observe Shabbos in the future, so too Moshe was permitted to carry the Tablets on Yom Kippur because the acceptance of the entire Torah and future observance of Yom Kippur was dependent upon it.
The Rogatchover notes that in Parashas Eikev, Moshe mentioned that he descended the mountain but didn’t say that he carried the Tablets with him. He suggests that Moshe actually left the Tablets on the mountain until the next day because of the prohibition against carrying them. Harav Yitzchak Sorotzkin challenges this explanation based on our parashah, which states explicitly that Moshe did carry the Tablets with him when he descended. Instead, he answers that the Midrash (Pirkei d’Rebbi Eliezer 45) teaches that the Tablets miraculously carried not only themselves, but also Moshe. Just as the Gemara in Shabbos (94a) rules that carrying a living creature is Biblically permitted because it is capable of carrying itself, so too Moshe was allowed to “carry” the Tablets because, in reality, he wasn’t carrying them at all.
The Chavatzeles HaSharon suggests that the entire holiness of Yom Kippur only began at the time that Hashem told Moshe that He forgave the Jews for the golden calf. Since this occurred in the middle of Yom Kippur, Moshe was exempt from observing it until the following year.
Originally from Kansas City, Rabbi Ozer Alport graduated from Harvard, learned in Mir Yerushalayim for five years, and now lives in Brooklyn, where he learns in Yeshivas Beis Yosef, is the author of the recently-published sefer Parsha Potpourri, and gives weekly shiurim. To send comments to the author or to receive his Divrei Torah weekly, please email oalport@Hamodia.com.