Parshat Chukat discusses the quintessential
(red heifer). While we cannot understand the true purpose of this mitzvah, we can attempt to study its meaning. First, the
states that it's meant to expiate the sin of the Golden Calf. Just as a mother is required to clean up the mess her child makes, so too must the cow purify the mess created by her young calf. Whether it provides a method of atonement for future generations or is specific to one sin (a part of which we all carry within us), the message remains that even when we think we understand a mitzvah, we do not know the real reason behind it.
Rabbi Kirzner citing the Ramchal explains that death was not a punishment for Adam's sin, but a direct consequence of his action. When God created Adam, He intended to create a body and a soul that together would elevate itself while on earth. If man kept his physical body aligned with his spiritual self, both would remain immortal. When Adam sinned, he created a disconnect. He allowed his body to dominate his soul instead of visa versa. Thus his body could no longer reach the elevation of the soul, and would therefore die and disintegrate while his soul rose heavenward. Death by definition is the loss of potential. The body did not live up to its ability and as a natural consequence decomposed. Yet there are recorded instances of
who, upon being reinterred, were found with their bodies intact, a testimony that their bodies were as dedicated to God's word as were their souls.
The purification for death is via ashes, to remind us that we too are but dust and ashes. The lesson is to be humble before the Lord, to accept that our bodies, like our souls, are meant to serve our Creator. When Bnei Yisroel were at Sinai and declared, "We will do and we will hear," they rectified the sin of Adam, and death was vanquished. However, when they took the symbol of their physical existence, their wealth, and dedicated it to a physical entity in defiance of God's wishes, when they relied on their own logic instead of God's word, they reintroduced the impurity of sin and brought death back into the world. This is the lesson of the ashes of the red cow. We need not know Hashem's reason; we must obey. Accept first, as we did as a nation at Sinai. Keep our physical aspect as a servant to the spiritual and not the other way around.
One of the roots of the sin of the Golden Calf was the wealth
acquired as they left Egypt which they used sinfully. This explains why this passage appears after the incident of Korach. Korach's wealth led him to arrogance, and to defiance against Hashem and Moshe. Red is the symbol of physical passion. We take that symbol and burn it. This also explains says the
paid exorbitant sums for a true
, actualizing the lesson that money is to be used in spiritual pursuits. Rabbi D. Hofstadter citing the last verse of Psalm 23, "May only goodness and kindness pursue me all the days of my life ...," notes that if I am to be pursued, let it be not by material problems, but by my involvement with good deeds.
Before we left Egypt, Hashem told us to borrow gold and silver utensils from the Egyptians. In truth, we were not borrowing from the Egyptians but as Rabbi Frand points out, we were borrowing them from Hashem to whom everything belongs. If we retain that mindset, that we are merely caretakers of Hashem's wealth, we will be less tempted to try to amass more than we need or to use what we were entrusted with inappropriately. The red cow symbolizes vitality and physical life, yet we reduce it to ashes and mix it with water, the symbol of the eternal soul, and sprinkle it on the one who has been defiled by death to teach him the primacy of the spirit.
Rabbi Roberts explains that Adam felt that his blissful state in Eden was too simple. He thought that if he actually engaged with the
, he would triumph and elevate himself to a more worthy position. Although his motive was laudable, he disobeyed God's explicit command. He considered his own reasoning to be above God's reasoning. Now one can understand how the laws of the red heifer can atone for the sin that brought death to the world. The contradiction defies human logic but we obey God's will and suppress our own power of reason in the process and thereby atone for Adam's sin. We must follow Hashem with
, completely and with integrity, just as the red heifer must also be
, completely red. As the
writes, the red heifer is not so much an atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf as it is a means of returning us to our former status of accepting Hashem's authority with
, and as the Chasam Sofer concludes, that acceptance brings atonement.