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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Para

How Now, Red Cow?

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The section of the Torah read as Maftir this Shabbat – Parshat Para – has baffled scholars & commentators for all of our history. Taken from the Sedra of Chukat, it is known as the "Chok par excellence," the most perplexing of all the seemingly unknowable statutes of the Torah.

The ashes of the red heifer, blended with various other ingredients, creates a compound that somehow manages to make spiritually pure those who had been defiled after coming into contact with a dead body. Yet at the very same time that the person is purified, the Kohen who
administers the compound is himself rendered tamei!

How can this be? How can the very same item have the opposite effect on two different people?

But to me, this is not the most challenging part of the puzzle. I find it even more mysterious that the ashes of a dead thing can "bring one back from the dead;" i.e. remove the stain of death from someone who had touched death. Now, I can understand how some acts - such as immersion in a Mikva - can serve to alter, or negate, the imprimatur of death, for in that instance it is life (in the form of water – which is the source of all life) which dispels death. But how can death cancel death?! This is indeed mystifying.

While I do not claim to be smarter than Shlomo HaMelech – who lamented that he could not unravel this ancient riddle – I do have a thought on the matter.

In the circle of life, there is a very close proximity of death to life. A leaf dies when it falls off a tree, but when it flutters to the ground it enriches the soil, which will then give life to new plants. A woman giving birth to a child causes her reproductive system to (temporarily) go
sterile, or dead. A person dies, but at the moment of his death, he enters into life eternal (thus a cemetery is referred to in our tradition as a "Beit Chaim," a house of life).

On a national level, our greatest moments of life were connected to the bitterest pangs of death. So it was when we reached the lowest level of degradation in Egypt, only to be followed swiftly by our Redemption. And so it was 70 years ago, when from the ashes of the Shoa there arose the rebirth of our great nation Israel. It is as if Hashem cannot bear for us to remain "tamei" for long; we must always return to vibrant, dynamic, pure life.

This coming week, as we all know, Israel enters a new phase of its national life. One administration will come to an end, & a new Knesset will come to life. May it be a Knesset of purity, & may it inject new and even more vibrant life into all of Klal Yisrael.
Rabbi Stewart Weiss
Was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College in Skokie, Illinois, and led congregations in Chicago and Dallas prior to making Aliyah in 1992. He directs the Jewish Outreach Center in Ra'anana, helping to facilitate the spiritual absorption of new olim.
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