Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Chukat
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Amram son of Sultana

Parashat Chukat

A Red Cow and a Golden Calf

The Almighty says, "Let the Red Cow come and expiate the sin of the Golden Calf." Yet, this calls for an explanation - What does the statute of the Red Cow have to do with the sin of the Golden Calf? What logical connection is there between the two?


Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed

1. The Red Cow and the Golden Calf
2. Getting to the Source of the Matter
3. "These are the Waters of Dispute"
4. Like Talking to a Cliff
5. The Torah of the Future

The Red Cow and the Golden Calf
The Sages teach that the Torah places its discussion of the "Parah Aduma," or Red Cow, immediately preceding the episode of Miriam's death in order to teach us an important lesson: "Just as the [mixture of spring water and ashes of the] Red Cow atones for sin, so the death of the righteous atones for sin." Yet, in the entire Torah chapter dealing the Red Cow no mention whatsoever is made of what exactly it atones for. It is perfectly permissible to allow oneself to become ritually unclean as a result of contact with a dead human being. This being the case, purification alone should suffice, and there should be no need for atonement. Only one who wishes to enter the Holy Temple or to touch sacred articles must purify himself. In order to answer this query later sages present us with an analogy: The maidservant's son dirtied the castle. The king said, "Let his mother come and clean up the filth"; similarly, the Almighty says, "Let the Red Cow come and expiate the sin of the Golden Calf." Yet, this too calls for an explanation - What, after all, does the statute of the Red Cow have to do with the transgression of the Golden Calf? What logical connection is there between them?

Rabbi Yehudah Liva, the Maharal of Prague provides the following explanation: The sin of the Golden Calf was idolatry. Idol worship involves subjection to an object which gives the appearance of being a primary force; it implies an incision from the true and ultimate source of all - the Almighty. The Children of Israel were wrong about the Golden Calf because they saw in it a source of all forces, believing it worthy of man's reverence; they viewed it as a source from which to derive power and receive inspiration. That the cow is the mother of the calf clearly demonstrates that a calf could not possibly be the source of all. It is for this reason that the Torah exhorts us to burn the Red Cow until it has been reduced to ashes. This is meant to deliver the message that even the cow, the progenitor of the calf, is no definitive or independent entity, and that it too must be attributed to a more primary source. The calf does not represent the source of any kind of power which it is possible to harness. For such a purpose one must turn to the ultimate source of all things, the Almighty Himself. This, then, is the more straightforward answer to our question, as given by Rabbi Yehudah Liva - the Maharal of Prague. On a deeper level, though, the Maharal explains that the Sin of the Golden Calf delayed Israel's readiness to receive the Tablets of the Ten Commandments. Now, seeing as these Tablets possessed the ability to raise Israel to a level upon which there is no death, the Sin of the Golden Calf had a deadly effect. The Red Cow, therefore, is meant to counter the impurity that accompanies this loss of life.

Getting to the Source of the Matter
Our beloved mentor, Rabbi Avraham Isaac HaCohen Kook, zt"l, in his seminal work, "Orot," adds another, even deeper, possible understanding. The purpose of the Red Cow is to purify one who has become ritually unclean as a result of contact with a dead human being. In order to become clean, one must have himself sprinkled on the third day and the seventh day. A more profound understanding of the Red Cow calls for seeing it not only as a vehicle for rectifying the state of impurity, but as a means for effecting the very source of the impurity - death itself. The purpose of the Red Cow is to rid the world of death, and in order to accomplish this the very source of death must be disposed of.

Why was death decreed upon humankind at all?
Mortality was the price that man was to pay for Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden. Had Adam not eaten from the Tree of Knowledge, the human lifespan would have been endless. Because of this grave transgression, Adam and his progeny were sentenced to death. This said, the Red Cow acts to repair the world and to restore it to its former glory of before the Original Sin. In essence, this is the idyllic future state which our universe constantly aspires to reach: a state wherein sin has been expiated and eliminated from the very foundation. When this state has been reached, death will disappear, for death is an expression of man's estrangement from his source and a manifestation of his spiritual deficiency.

Rabbi Kook brings this idea in relation to the present period in Jewish history, a period of redemption and ingathering of exiles. The process of national rebirth is more than just a practical physical solution to the hardships of the exile; the larger goal of the redemption of Israel is to remedy the ills of creation as a whole and to fundamentally rectify all of the universe's wrongs. It is important to understand that every step forward on the road to Israel's redemption serves to set mankind's failures right from the very foundation by uprooting and eliminating them completely.

This holistic approach can be applied on an individual level as well. When striving to correct a misdeed, a person should do his best to correct it from the very source. It is not enough to rid oneself of that which what was; one must look further and deeper in an attempt to arrive at the ultimate cause of the fault - the cause behind the cause of the fault. In this manner, the process of rectification makes itself felt on all levels, intentions and actions alike.

"These are the Waters of Dispute"
Let us move on to the next episode in our Torah Portion.
God commands Moses and Aaron to "speak to the cliff in the presence [of the community]," but Moses ends up striking the cliff. Angered, Moses shouts out, "Listen now, you rebels!" Clearly some blame must be placed upon those who caused the "greatest prophet ever" to become cross. The people anger Moses and Aaron, telling them that there was no need to look for a specific cliff. Moses and Aaron respond by saying that only the cliff which the Almighty himself has designated was satisfactory, as the verse states, "How can we produce water for you from this cliff?" Moses' anger causes him to err, and as a result he is visited with punishment - he is barred from entering the land of Israel. This is a very heavy fine indeed. Moses' mistake was a small one, yet when dealing with Moses, the man of faith par excellence, God acted strictly. The Maharal explains that Moses had pure motives and in fact acted on behalf of God. He feared that if he speak to the cliff and no water come forth, God's holy name would be desecrated; he believed that striking the cliff with a staff would make a greater impression. What's more, God had told him to "take the staff"; Moses could reason that God Himself intended for him to strike the cliff. Moses desired nothing else but to sanctify God's name. The Almighty, though, desired for His name to be sanctified on an even loftier level. "You did not have enough faith in Me to sanctify Me." There was a faith-related problem here. These leaders had not attained the level necessary in order sanctify God's name properly.

The Maharal writes, "They performed this act while in a state of anger, for they said, 'Listen now, you rebels!' and then struck the cliff. And one who fulfills a commandment while angered (especially where a great miracle is performed in the process, as was the case here) must be regarded as lacking faith, for faith can be said to belong only to one who places his trust the Almighty, and such a person must necessarily be joyful when carrying out a divine commandment, for this what faith is all about: believing in God and trusting in Him..." Later, the Maharal adds, "They should have revitalized their faith and trust in the Almighty; they should have added an additional layer of faith and trust - and joy would also have been fitting." In other words, a Jew should follow the path of pure and simple faith. When one becomes filled with trust in God, a feeling of joy and a sense of peace of mind naturally follow. This being the case, we can fairly state that perfect faith is a state of joy. The man of faith must place complete trust in the Almighty, and then his joy will come naturally. This principal is all the more so true when one is in the process of fulfilling the so-central commandment of sanctifying God's name. Exceedingly humble as he was, Moses feared that he was not on high enough a spiritual level, and hence would not succeed in doing what needed to be done. "Instead of sanctifying God's name," thought Moses, "I will cause it to be desecrated."

This, incidentally, is not the first time that Moses finds himself in such a position. When God tells Moses to go and inform the enslaved Children of Israel that the time has come for them to be redeemed, Moses argues that "they will not believe me." Angered, God offers Moses a number of miraculous devices designed to convince the Israelites of his legitimacy. Here, then, Moses is worried that God's honor will be tainted if the Children of Israel fail to believe in him. He is not concerned in the slightest about his own honor - Moses was more humble than any other person; he acts as representative of the Almighty, and therefore is concerned about God's reputation. As a result of Moses' lack of faith, the Exodus from Egypt was not as lofty and refined an event as it could possibly have been. Had Moses not demurred, but gone straight to the enslaved Children of Israel, and had they accepted him immediately without witnessing any miracles, their leaving Egypt would have been a more praiseworthy event - it would have been the result of a desire to cling to, and fulfill, the wishes of the Almighty. What happened instead, though, was that a situation was created wherein they seemed to have based their faith upon miracles alone. This clearly is a less admirable level of faith; it spelled a spiritually deficient commencement for the Exodus, and, as a result, the entire event did not reach the level it could have.

Like Talking to a Cliff
Elsewhere, though, our Sages suggest that it was actually for the best that Moses did not enter the land of Israel. This is for the following reason:
Had Moses entered the land of Israel, he would no doubt have proceeded to build the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Now, had Moses been the one responsible for building the Temple, the structure would have been infused with such spiritual might that its demise would have been an impossibility. And had the Temple been indestructible, the Almighty would have been unable to release his anger on its stones and wood - He would have had to release it on Israel instead.

It is important to realize that God's commanding Moses to "speak to the cliff" was intended to elevate the Israelites to a higher spiritual level; if an inanimate stone was capable of responding to speech, how much more so should the Jews respond to God's word.
From here we are able to learn the proper way of causing faith in God to appear in the world. The most effective method of convincing the Jewish people is through logical and persuasive argument. Fear of punishment, coercion based upon God's threatening power, and the fact that one has no choice but to do His will, are not points which win over believers. It is necessary to elevate the Jew to the loftiest possible height of voluntary and willful faith in God.

There is a verse which teaches us that the words of the Torah are comparable to "a hammer which smashes the cliff." The reference is to the cliff which appears here in the episode of the Waters of Dispute. This cliff cannot withstand words of Torah. If only Moses had spoken to the cliff, all spiritual influence in the world would have become natural, the way it is expected to become in the idyllic days to come. This is the sort of existence which can be expected in the Days of the Messiah. The desire to worship God will come naturally; His will and ours will be identical. The evil inclination will wither away naturally. There will be no uncertainty whatsoever inside of man; he will identify completely with the desire of the Creator. Had Moses spoken to the cliff as he was commanded, there would never have been any need to destroy the Holy Temple.

Yet because of the "rebels," that generation was not prepared for such a level, and the nation was incapable of ascending. A leader is tied to his followers, and therefore, when the nation is unable to advance, neither can its leader. This spiritual ascent, then, was put off for many generations. Since then, we have been busy developing our spiritual capacity in order that we eventually reach a level of speaking to the cliff: that the cliff release water naturally without the need for a staff.

The Torah of the Future
Torah may be likened to water. In order to grasp the depth of the Torah one must exert himself greatly. And even then, after all of the hard work, only a few drops of wisdom are extracted.
Yet, in the future, things will be different. In the future, Torah will exist on a higher plane - it will flow naturally, unimpeded by complexity and difficulty. The Torah scholars of the land of Israel can be seen as reflecting this aspect. The Talmud refers to them as "Noam" - pleasantness; the Torah scholars of Babylon, on the other hand, are called, "Makel Chovlim" - beating rods. Everything is relative. In the future, the Torah will take a different form, like a gushing spring. The cliff will be smashed open and will release its waters copiously.

Moses struck the cliff twice. This symbolizes two eras. First, the Torah of the present era is revealed. True, Torah fills our life with substance: with light, joy, happiness, and meaning; yet, when compared to the nature of Torah in the future, these things are only a drop in the bucket. Our task is to elevate the form which the Torah takes so that it be a living Torah in our midst - so that we be brought to desire the Torah and identify with it. This is achieved through our clinging and adhering to the Torah. We must lead the entire nation in this direction.
Incidentally, our Torah Portion contains educational guidance. This can be seen in the following:
There is a question connected to our episode that begs to be asked. Why, if God is opposed to Moses' beating the cliff, does he tell him to "take the staff"? Apparently, this is meant to teach us that, often, one must hold a rod in one's hand. A good teacher is one who holds a rod in his hand but never uses it; such a teacher educates his students in correct behavior because they fear him, yet, in practice, he speaks to his students and draws them close.
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