Abarbanel on the Parsha

For the week ending 27 June 2015 / 10 Tammuz 5775

Parshat Chukat

by Rabbi Pinchas Kasnett
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The detailed procedures surrounding the sacrificial offering of the para aduma (Red Heifer) were intended to purify the congregation of Israel from the spiritual impurity that resulted from contact with the deceased. This was to prevent them from spiritually contaminating the Tabernacle and its vessels. The Torah emphasizes at the beginning of the Parsha that the procedures of the para aduma are a decree of the Torah. This is to teach us that the details of the commandment of the para aduma are similar to the ways we are expected to approach G-d’s Torah. This does not mean that the procedures of the para aduma should only be understood as a metaphor for the nature, study and practice of the Torah; the mitzvah of para aduma stands alone according to its literal understanding. Rather, its procedures serve as examples of how to approach the Torah, which is the basis of all the commandments.

The parallels are numerous. Just as the Torah is perfect, without any defect, the para aduma must be unblemished. Just as the individual enjoys the fruits of his Torah study in both this world and the next — “My fruits are better than fine gold, even choice gold.” (Proverbs 8:19), the sacrifice of the para aduma offers atonement, which is the choicest fruit, or benefit. Just as one who accepts upon himself the yoke of Torah is freed from the yoke of the governmental authorities and the yoke of struggling to earn a livelihood, so too it is forbidden to place a yoke upon this animal’s neck. Just as the highest level of Torah is found among the kohanim, as it says, “For the lips of the kohen should safeguard knowledge and people should seek teaching from his mouth, for he is an agent of G-d.” (Malachi 2:7), so too the mitzvah of para aduma was given specifically to Eliezer the Kohen. Just as the most intense study of Torah requires the individual to sit alone in isolation, so too the para aduma is taken outside the encampment of the people. Just as we must delve into the Torah to extract its inner secrets, we also slaughter the animal to extract the blood, the life force that lies hidden inside. Sprinkling that blood opposite the Ark which contains the Tablets of the Law reminds us that our analysis of those inner secrets must not take us away from the accepted truths of the Torah which have been handed down for generations. Just as the highest ‘spiritual intelligences’ are referred to as ‘Serafim’, from the Hebrew word which means ‘to burn’, so too the para aduma is burned on the Altar. All parts of the animal are burned, from the dung, which is least valuable, to the hide, which is most valuable. Added to the resulting ashes are cedar-wood, the most valuable of woods, and hyssop, the least valuable. This reminds us that every word and letter of the Torah is valuable, no matter how insignificant or repetitive it may appear. Just as the teachers of Torah, the students of Torah, and those who serve them must be of exemplary character, so too the kohanim who were involved with the para aduma were required to immerse their clothing and their entire bodies, an act which symbolizes perfection of character. Just as the Torah is called “spring water” which purifies the spiritually impure, so too the ashes of the animal are mixed with spring water in order to purify the spiritually impure.

The final comparison sheds light on the seemingly contradictory idea that even though this mixture purifies the impure, it actually imparts impurity to the kohen who administers it. This can be understood through the admonition in Pirkei Avot (4:16), “Rabbi Yehuda said, ‘Be meticulous in study, for a careless misinterpretation is considered tantamount to willful transgression’.”

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