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, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Peretz ben Chaim, the Kedoshim of Har Nof and Pittsburgh, and the refuah shlaimah of Yakir Ephraim ben Rachel Devorah, Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, and the safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
The mitzvah of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) is the focal point of the beginning of our parasha:
This is the statute of the Torah that the L-rd commanded, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.” … It shall be an everlasting statute for the children of Israel and for the proselyte who resides in their midst. (Sefer Bamidbar 19:2 and 10, this and all Bible translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach)
The goal of this commandment is to purify an individual who has become tamei (ritually impure) as a result of contact with a corpse. It is intrinsically mystifying in nature since, in the course of its fulfillment, the individual who has come into contact with a corpse becomes tahor (ritually pure), whereas the one who assists in the purification process is paradoxically rendered tamei.
Sefer Melachim I: 3:12 teaches us that Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon), the wisest individual who ever lived, was blessed by Hashem with the greatest da’at (native intelligence) and most profound binah (insight into the interrelationship of things) that anyone could ever achieve: “Behold, I have done according to your word; behold, I have given you a wise and understanding heart; so that there was none like you before you, nor after you shall any arise like you.” Yet, even he was stymied by the Red Heifer’s irreconcilable contradictions and poignantly lamented: “All this I tested with wisdom; I said, ‘I will become wise,’ but it was far from me.” (Sefer Kohelet 7:23) According to a variety of Midrashim, the word “it” specifically refers to the Parah Adumah.
The great 19th century sage, Rabbi Yosef Dov Halevi Soloveitchik zatzal (1820-1892), in his Torah commentary, Beit HaLevi, on Sefer Shemot, Chapter 31, presents an exposition of the Parah Adumah that helps us understand its essential meaning. He notes that the phrase, “this is the statute of the Torah that the L-rd commanded, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow...,’” is very unusual, since the Red Heifer is singled out as being the “statute of the Torah.” He therefore asks: “At face value, the Parah Adumah is simply one of the  mitzvot of the Torah. Why, therefore, is it given the unusual label of the “statute of the Torah?” His answer expresses his fundamental beliefs regarding the search for the underlying rationale of the mitzvot:
… for it is precisely from the Parah Adumah that it is revealed to man that he, in reality, does not know anything regarding [the true meaning inherent] in any mitzvah of the Torah, since, [as this verse suggests,] the entire Torah is a statute (chukah) [that defies our understanding]. (This and the following translations my own.)
Rav Soloveitchik proceeds to elaborate upon this statement:
And the explanation of this concept is the following; behold all of the mitzvot are inextricably connected to, and interwoven with, one another. Moreover, each one depends upon the other – just as we find in reference to lowly man who has 248 limbs and 365 sinews – all of whom are attached one to another, and all of whom depend upon one another. This is the case, as well, regarding the mitzvot wherein the 248 Positive Commandments and the 365 Negative Commandments are attached to one another and form one unit. [As a result,] it is impossible to comprehend even one of the mitzvot without understanding all of them. Therefore, when we encounter the Parah Adumah and we do not understand its underlying principle – it is clear that we really know nothing at all [regarding any of the mitzvot].
Given these thoughts, the Red Heifer emerges as a protection against man’s natural hubris and potential for intellectual arrogance:
…the Parah Adumah is, therefore, a fence and a protective measure for man who utilizes his intellect (hamitbonane b’sichlo) to examine the reasons inherent in the mitzvot. It prevents him from erring in their regard... and from bursting forth [against the mitzvot] and declaring: “I am the one who knows their rationale!” For were he to do so, he would soon err and add or subtract [from the mitzvot].
In Rav Soloveitchik’s view, there is only one way to demonstrate acceptance of, and loyalty to, the commandments:
One must perform all of the mitzvot, with all of their specific details, according to what we have received from our Rabbis according to the overarching rules of the Torah, and the established halacha, without any deviation whatsoever from the words of the Shulchan Aruch. This is the case since he himself recognizes that he does not comprehend the depth of these matters… (Translation and emphasis my own)
In sum, the Parah Adumah may be viewed as the mitzvah that provides us with a conceptual model for approaching all of the other mitzvot, as it reminds us, perhaps more than any other commandment, that Hashem is the measure of all things. With the Almighty’s help, may we be zocheh (merit) to serve Him with humility and devotion as we strive to fulfill His holy Torah. V’chane yihi ratzon.
Past drashot may be found at my blog-website: http://reparashathashavuah.org
They may also be found on http://www.yutorah.org using the search criteria Etengoff and the parasha’s name.
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*** My audio shiurim for Women on the topics of Tefilah and Tanach may be found at: http://tinyurl.com/8hsdpyd
*** I have posted 164 of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s English language shiurim (MP3 format) spanning the years 1958-1984. Please click on the highlighted link.
Talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik zatzal