Parah Adumah: A Chok?

Daber el Bnei Yisrael v’yikchu eilecha parah adumah temimah (Bamidbar 19:2)

Parashas Chukas begins with the mitzvah of the parah adumah (red heifer), the ashes of which were used to purify those who had become impure through contact with the dead. Rashi notes (19:1) that the Torah refers to this mitzvah as a “chok” — a Divine decree with no readily apparent rationale. Even the wise Shlomo Hamelech declared that after using all of his intellectual capabilities to attempt to understand this mitzvah, he was still unable to do so (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3).

Yet Rashi also writes that the red heifer served as atonement for the sin of the golden calf; and he explains how each detail of its laws specifically atones for a corresponding aspect of the golden calf. This is difficult to understand. After explaining that the parah adumah is the quintessential chok, how can Rashi proceed to explain in great detail the rationale behind the mitzvah? Additionally, in what way did this specific mitzvah effect atonement for the sin of the golden calf?

The Beis HaLevi explains that when the Jewish people incorrectly concluded, in Parashas Ki Sisa, 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. 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 spiritual worlds when performed properly. The Jewish people erred in thinking that if they discovered the mystical concepts behind a mitzvah, they could perform it based on their understanding, even without being commanded. Although their intentions were good, they lacked the Divine assistance that comes only from performing Hashem’s Will, and they ended up sinning with the golden calf.

With this introduction, we can now answer our questions. The mitzvah of parah adumah is indeed a chok, the logic of which escaped Shlomo Hamelech and certainly Rashi. If so, how can Rashi say that the red heifer comes to atone for the golden calf? The root of the sin of the golden calf was the Jews’ attempt to be too smart and to do something that Hashem didn’t command them to do. The ultimate rectification of this sin is to completely subordinate one’s intellect to Hashem’s dictates — as manifested by the willingness to perform a chok, a mitzvah that appears to make no sense, but which one does solely because Hashem commanded it.

This explanation brings to mind the following incident. I was once speaking to someone who was just beginning to become observant and didn’t yet fully understand all of the laws. I asked him what he had done during the recent Yom Tov of Sukkos. He explained that he hadn’t had the time to build a sukkah; but since he thought that the theme of the holiday is communing with nature, he had eaten all of his meals for the week in a nearby park. Although he felt that he was keeping the spirit of the law, the sad reality is that without keeping the letter of the law (i.e. eating in a valid sukkah), his good intentions didn’t produce the desired results.

We live in a generation that actively promotes “spiritual” experiences. Temporary highs may seem tempting, but the lesson of the golden calf and red heifer is that there are no shortcuts to closeness to Hashem, which comes only from fulfilling His will.

Q: Who is on a higher level of purity: a person who remains ritually pure his entire life, or one who becomes impure but subsequently re-purifies himself?

A: The Rambam writes that whereas a person who never became impure is simply pure by default, someone who became impure and underwent the purification process is specifically pronounced “pure” by the Torah (19:19), and is on a higher level of purity. The Chavatzeles HaSharon explains this by quoting Harav Shimon Shkop, who writes that immersion in a mikveh doesn’t merely remove impurity, but it brings a new purity onto the person, and suggests that the same concept applies to the purification of the ashes of the red heifer. However, Harav Yosef Engel questions the Rambam based on a Gemara that says that three Sages had eaten a meal together and were discussing who should lead Birkas Hamazon. One Sage said that he should lead because he had had nine kavim of water poured on him, which effects purity in some areas. Another said that he should lead because he had immersed in a mikveh. The third Sage argued that he should lead because he hadn’t even needed to purify himself, seemingly contradicting the Rambam.

Q: Rashi writes (21:1) that when the Amalekites came to attack the Jewish people, they were afraid that the Jews would pray to Hashem to defeat them. In an attempt to thwart the efficacy of their prayers, the Amalekites spoke in the Canaanite language, hoping that the Jews would be tricked into praying for victory over their Canaanite foes. Because they were still wearing the clothing of Amalekites, the Jews were confused regarding their true identity and simply prayed to Hashem for help in defeating “this nation” — whichever it may be — and they prevailed. Why didn’t the Amalekites also change their garments to those of the Canaanites to ensure that their ruse would be successful?

A: Harav Simcha Bunim of Peshischa answers that the Amalekites’ unique clothing was so precious to them that they refused to change it, even at the risk of their lives. The Chiddushei Harim suggests that had they switched both their language and clothing, they would cease being Amalekites and would effectively become Canaanites, in which case the prayers of the Jews to defeat “the Canaanites” would be effective against them. He adds that one may derive from here that a Jew who speaks and dresses in a non-Jewish manner begins acting like a non-Jew. This explanation is supported by Rashi in Divrei Hayamim, who explains that the verse there refers to Amalekites as Ammonites because they changed their clothing and language to that of the Ammonites.

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