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How Now Red Cow?

By: Rav Jonathan Bailey

The mitzvah of Parah Adumah is almost always the example given for something we do not understand; the top of the list of the category of commandments we label chukim. But is there really a mitzvah that only requires a blind worship? Does God really desire us to just do actions so He knows we’re doing what He says? Usually mitzvot are understood as tools to reach a closer relationship with God, a heightened awareness of His presence, and the understandings of their actions assist with that. So it would follow that there has to be some meaning even to this mitzvah for us to actively appreciate.

An answer is found in the haftarah that is read along with the special maftir for this Shabbat (Parshat Parah). It records a vision of Yechezkel, where God is admonishing Bnei Yisrael because they have sinned so badly against Him and He has had to punish them. Because of this, His name is now being desecrated by all the surrounding nations who have begun to mock Him because of the despicable state of His ‘chosen nation’. So God declares that He will save Bnei Yisrael and bring them back to Eretz Yisrael - not because they deserve it and not because they have done anything themselves, but rather because He doesn’t want His name besmirched anymore. This same idea is repeated many times: He is not doing anything because of the deserving nature of His nation!

So, it turns out that there are moments in our lives where we have reached the lowest of the lows and only God can take us out; only He can save us.  There is nothing we can do, and God says, specifically, that we shouldn’t (and can’t) do anything, i.e. that our ultimate salvation has nothing to do with us.

This, I believe, is the very idea behind the Parah Adumah.

It is very strange that this action, which is only used when needing to remove the highest level of Tumah (Tumat Met) is the simplest of actions (a mere sprinkling as opposed to a dunking) and done by someone else (as opposed to our own dunking). When we have reached this total low, there is only one way of being saved from it - and it has nothing to do with us, nothing that we can actualize ourselves!

However, why is it important to have moments in time where the only saving is out of our hands, with its solution facilitated only by God? It is not a coincidence that the midrash, talking about Yetziat Mitzrayim, stated that we had fallen into the last level of Tumah when God saved us. When there is no hope in sight, when you believe everything is lost, the one that saves you from that situation is even more intensely appreciated - blessed, praised, exalted - even due to the smallest of actions expressed by that savior. Even the most trivial of actions seem grandiose because of the tremendous salvation they have actualized. When God established certain (mitzvah) situations where we are required to sit back and allow someone else’s, smallest actions to remove us from our dire state, then our appreciation and awareness of God’s presence is ever heightened! This is the understanding of the mitzvah- we are not supposed to understand why it works - only that it does. This mitzvah, therefore, is a tool to reach a closer relationship with God and a heightened awareness of His presence because the action of this mitzvah is specifically not in our hands. It’s specifically the lack of understanding of this mitzvah that teaches its intended message.


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