Watch: a short lesson by Reb Yoel Kahn on Parshas Parah with English subtitles and transcript.
Watch a short lesson by Reb Yoel Kahn on Parshas Parah with English subtitles and transcript.
Scroll down for the English transcript.
Parshas Parah begins with the words, “Zos chukas hatorah – this is the chok of the Torah.”
It is known that mitzvos are divided into three categories. Mishpatim are mitzvos we would have understood even if Torah would not have told us about them (for example, to respect our parents and to refrain from stealing). Edus are mitzvos we would not have devised on our own, but now that Torah has commanded us to do them, we are able to understand them. Finally, chukim are mitzvos we do not understand even once the Torah instructs us to do them; in fact, they run contrary to logic.
Among chukim themselves, certain mitzvos contain a certain measure of logic, and others less so. The most illogical of them all is the mitzvah of parah adumah. In fact, although Shlomo Hamelech was able to find an explanation for every other mitzvah, when it came to parah adumah he stated, “I attempted to acquire wisdom, but it is distant from me.”
This is the reason the verse states, “This is the chok of the Torah.” Seemingly, the verse should have stated, “This is the chok of the parah” (similar to the verse discussing the korban pesach—“zos chukas haposach”)? This is because the parah adumah is the epitome of chukim; it is the only chok of its kind in the entire Torah.
The Alter Rebbe explains that the word chukah is related to the word chakikah, engraving.
When writing on parchment, the letters are not formed from the parchment itself, rather they consist of ink that is added to the parchment. By contrast, when engraving in stone, the letters are created from the actual stone.
Similarly, all mitzvos are essentially Hashem’s will, and are beyond intellect. However, upon descending to the plane of actuality, certain mitzvos—mishpatim—“acquire” logical explanations as well (similar to parchment upon which ink is added). Chukim, however, remain in their pristine state as Hashem’s will that is higher than intellect (similar to an engraved stone upon which no other substance is added).
The same is true regarding the attitude of the Jew performing the mitzvah. Every mitzvah should be performed with kabolas ol, an approach that is higher than reasoning and is sourced in the neshamah. However, with mishpatim, one is also motivated by an intellectual appreciation of the mitzvah. By contrast, chukim are fulfilled solely with kabolas ol; the essence of the Jew’s neshamah connects directly to the essence of Hashem.
This further explains the verse, “This is the chok of the (entire) Torah.” In truth, every mitzvah in the Torah is a chok and is higher than intellect. What makes parah adumah unique is that it displays the concept of chok in a revealed way.
There are two elements of parah adumah that seem to be odd:
- Although the water of the parah adumah bring purity to those who are impure, they also bring impurity to those who were previously pure.
- Unlike all other korbanos, which are sacrificed in the Beis Hamikdash, the parah adumah was burnt “outside the camp.”
These two elements express the idea of chukah—that it consists of Hashem’s will that is beyond intellect, and that it must be fulfilled with kabolas ol deriving from the essence of the soul.
How is this so?
Purifying a Spiritual Corpse
The Midrash states that when Moshe perceived tumas meis, the impurity imparted through contacting a corpse, his face became dark and he exclaimed: “How can such a person become pure?!”
Moshe was not surprised that other types of impurity can be cleansed. As long as the tumah derives from a live person, purity can be achieved, because a measure of vitality—synonymous with holiness—still exists. A corpse, however, symbolizes someone who has no vitality whatsoever; he lacks any type of chayus in Torah and mitzvos. How can such a person become pure?!
The Midrash explains the parah adumah by quoting the possuk: “Who can obtain purity from impurity? Only the One [Hashem].” Only Hashem, who is above any and all limitations, can bring purity even to someone who lacks any form of vitality.
We, too, must demonstrate a form of boundlessness and bittul that defies logic. Furthermore, this approach must be actualized mainly by putting ourselves to the side for the sake of assisting another Jew, both materially and spiritually.
It may happen that we encounter another Jew who is a “corpse”— externally he appears to possess no chayus or kedushah whatsoever. From a limited, logical perspective, it may seem that he is a lost cause and nothing can be done. However, we must know that even such a person is connected to Hashem and is “alive”; it’s just that his chayus is deep down and cannot be seen. Our job is to endeavor to “purify” him, disregarding the harm that may come our way from doing so.
To bring purity to a lifeless “corpse,” we need the concept of chukah: a level of bittul that surpasses reason, and the Divine Will that is beyond logic and limitations.
Outside the Camp
This approach is expressed in the two irrational elements of parah adumah: it brings impurity to those who are pure, and is sacrificed outside the camp.
Most korbanos are brought as atonement for sins committed inadvertently. A Jew by nature would never sin even by mistake; if such a transgression does occur, it is a sign that his animal soul has undue power, and he must therefore bring a korban. However, the level of kelipah being atoned for is merely kelipas nogah.
By contrast, the parah adumah brings purity even to the three impure kelipos that are lower than kelipas nogah. This is why it is offered outside the camp, as it brings atonement even to those who are “outside” the camp of holiness. To accomplish this, it is necessary to harness a level Above that is also “outside the camp”—a level that is beyond limitations.
When it comes to us, we must put ourselves to the side and bring purity to another Jew, even if that will cause us to become “impure.” Furthermore: We know that through helping others, we gain as well. To quote the possuk, “Hashem enlightens the eyes of both”—both the poor man and the rich man (whether literally or figuratively). However, this should not be what is motivating us. Our approach should be that even if purifying the other will lower us—as indeed is the case on an external level—we disregard that and assist him nonetheless.
(Obviously, the spiritual harm referred to here is of a type that is in accordance with Shulchan Aruch. If it is not, we must certainly avoid it.)
What gives us the power to act in such a way?
The possuk says that the Jews were to bring the parah adumah “eilecha,” to Moshe. This teaches us, says Rashi, that the parah adumah will always be known as “the parah prepared by Moshe in the desert.” Since an entity’s name expresses its content, it follows that the parah adumah is all about Moshe.
Moshe represents the concept of bittul. He is the one who gives us the ability to help others without regard for ourselves, not because of the benefits we might receive.
Keep Some for Yourself!
It happens that a person is so engrossed in helping others that he forgets to tend to his own spiritual needs.
Here, too, we can learn a lesson from the parah adumah. The ashes of the parah adumah were split into three parts, one of which was to be kept l’mishmeres—as a safekeeping. In other words, even when working on purifying others, we must keep some of the ashes for ourselves, so that we, too, will remember to remain pure.
This is the meaning of the verse, “If you see someone who is naked, you should clothe him, and you should not forsake your flesh.” If you see someone who lacks the “clothing” of mitzvos, you should see to it to clothe him. However, at the same time, you should not forget about your own “flesh,” and you should ensure that you, too, are pure.
For further study, see Likkutei Sichos, vol. 4, pp. 1056ff