Parashat Chukat 5774, 2014
The Red Heifer and Other Mysteries
Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chaim Mordechai Hakohen ben Natan Yitzchak, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shmuel David ben Moshe Halevy, and the refuah shlaimah of Yosef Shmuel ben Miriam, Devorah bat Chana, and Yitzhak Akiva ben Malka.
The Torah differentiates between three different kinds of knowledge. When Moshe is informed that Betzalel is going to design the Mishkan (portable sanctuary), Hashem informs him that He has “…filled him [Betzalel] with the spirit of Elokim, with chachmah, tevunah and da’at.” (Sefer Shemot 31: 3) Rashi (1040-1105) explains chachmah as “knowledge” since it refers to “that which a man hears from others and learns from it,” whereas tevunah refers to the ability to extrapolate and apply that knowledge. Da’at, in his view and in this context, refers specifically to the ruach hakodesh (holy spirit) that was bestowed upon Betzalel to enable him to fulfill his awesome and noble task.
Rabbeinu Shimshon Raphael Hirsch zatzal (1808-1888), in his commentary on the Siddur, explains two of the above-mentioned terms somewhat differently. For Rav Hirsch, da’at “…denotes the true perception of the real nature of things and conditions.” Binah (a variant of tevunah), in contrast, “is the insight into the interrelationships of things, to be gained by logical judgment.” He further contrasts these two terms in the following manner:
Da’ath, to a great extent, is a talent given to man which develops by itself in and through experience. But he cannot acquire binah without an effort on his own part. Therefore [in the fourth bracha of the Amidah] the term melamade [teach] is employed with reference to binah instead of chonen [that which is given in kindness]…The acquisition of binah requires strenuous effort to which man may not be equal and for which he may well lack the strength; for this reason he cannot attain binah without the help of G-d.
In summary, for Rav Hirsch, da’at is the ability to accurately perceive the real nature of the world. It is gifted to man. Binah, however, is difficult to acquire and something that one must constantly strive to attain. This struggle can only be won with the help of our Creator.
Chazal (our Sages) teach us in a variety of sources that Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon) was the wisest man who ever lived. He was the master of all known chachmah. He received the greatest da’at (following Rav Hirsch’s understanding above) from Hashem. Moreover, with G-d’s help and love, he acquired the most profound binah that any man could ever attain. Nonetheless, the explanation of one mitzvah forever eluded Shlomo Hamelech’s phenomenal intellect: the Parah Adumah (the Red Heifer), as presented in this week’s parasha. This mitzvah defied his understanding because of its paradoxical nature, i.e. it ritually purifies the impure while simultaneously rendering the ritually pure impure. Even Shlomo Hamelech could not solve this conundrum. It is a “riddle” that remains unsolved until our own time.
I believe there is a reason why no one has ever been able to logically explain the mitzvah of Parah Adumah. I believe that it is Hashem’s gentle way of teaching and reminding us that we must remain humble before Him; it is His way of teaching us that try as we may, complete understanding of the Torah will forever elude us. After all, the Torah is divrei Elokim mamash (the actual words of G-d) and, since He will always remain unknowable to us, so too, will His words, on occasion, defy our finite comprehension. This is as it should be. In a sense, it is a small glimmer of His divine plan and, thereby, a window into the Infinite.
May we be zocheh (merit) to live in the time of Mashiach (the Messiah) when the “world will only be involved with [trying to] know Hashem,” and the Jewish people will be “great wise me [people] who will know secret matters and achieve knowledge of their Creator according to the highest ability...” (Rambam, Maimonides, 1135-1240, Hilchot Melachim 12:5) With Hashem’s help, may the authentic knowledge of Hashem and His Torah manifest itself throughout the entire world, and the hearts and souls of mankind – soon and in our days. V’chane yihi ratzon.
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