Friday, July 08, 2005

Chukat #3: Making Sense of Parah Adumah

Parshat Chukat begins {Bemidbar 19} by discussing the chukat haTorah - the statute of the Torah - of Parah Aduma, the red heifer:
א וַיְדַבֵּר ה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל-אַהֲרֹן לֵאמֹר. 1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying:
ב זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה ה לֵאמֹר: דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין-בָּהּ מוּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָלָה עָלֶיהָ, עֹל. 2 This is the statute of the law which the LORD hath commanded, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer, faultless, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke.
Chazal distinguish between the two types of law, chok and mishpat, stating that a mishpat is an understandable law, whereas a chok is not understandable, and which we follow because it it the decree of the King.

Indeed, underscoring this point, King Shlomo, who was granted great wisdom by Hashem (see e.g. Melachim Aleph 5:9 and on), still did not understand Parah Adumah.

Part of the mystery is that the ashes of the Para Adumah act to remove tum`a (ritual impurity), yet if you read the details, each of the people involved in its preparation become impure (though with a passing tum'a).

One of my favorite midrashim is on this parsha, which details how the Parah Adumah functions to remove tum'a. It is my favorite because it establishes an important principle which I feel is applicable to many other aspects of Torah.

It may be found in Midrash Rabba on Chukat:
שאל עובד כוכבים אחד את רבן יוחנן בן זכאי אילין עובדייא דאתון עבדין נראין כמין כשפים
אתם מביאים פרה ושורפין אותה וכותשין אותה ונוטלין את אפרה ואחד מכם מטמא למת מזין עליו ב' וג' טיפין ואתם אומרים לו טהרת
אמר לו לא נכנסה בך רוח תזזית מימיך?
אמר לו לאו
ראית אדם שנכנסה בו רוח תזזית?
אמר לו הן
א"ל ומה אתם עושין לו?
אמר לו מביאין עיקרין ומעשנין תחתיו ומרביצים עליה מים והיא בורחת
א"ל ישמעו אזניך מה שאתה מוצא מפיך
כך הרוח הזו רוח טומאה דכתיב (זכריה יג) וגם את הנביאים ואת רוח הטומאה אעביר מן הארץ מזין עליו מי נדה והוא בורח
לאחר שיצא אמרו לו תלמידיו רבינו לזה דחית בקנה לנו מה אתה אומר?
אמר להם חייכם לא המת מטמא ולא המים מטהרין!
אלא אמר הקב"ה חקה חקקתי גזירה גזרתי אי אתה רשאי לעבור על גזרתי דכתיב זאת חוקת התורה
A certain gentile (idolator) asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: These acts which you do appear like sorcery!
You bring a heifer and burn it, and crush it, and take its ashes, and if one of you is impure from a corpse you sprinkle upon him two or three drops and you tell him he is pure!
He (Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai) said to him: Have you ever had a ruach tezazit {spirit of delirious fever} enter you in your life?
He said to him: No
He (Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai) said to him: Have you ever seen someone who a ruach tezazit had entered him?
He said to him: Yes.
He (Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai) said to him: And what do you do for him?
He said to him: We bring {medicinal} roots and cause them to smoke under him, and we inundate it with water, and it {the ruach tezazit} flees.
After he {the idolator} left, his students said to him (Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai): To this one {the idolator} you have pushed away with a reed {that is, engaged in apologetics}; to us {who know better}, what will you say?
He said to them: By your lives! The corpse does not cause tum`a and the water {of the ashes of the Parah Adumah} do not cause him to be tahor!
Rather, the Holy One, Blessed Be He, said: A chok I have established, a decree I have decreed, and you are not permitted to violate my decree. As it states {in the second verse of parashat Chukat}: זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה - "This is the statute of the law."
I believe that what Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was saying was this: There is no such thing as tum'a and tahara - impurity and purity. They are not physical, nor spiritual conditions. Rather, Hashem made a decree that we should relate to someone or something that has touched a corpse as if he was impure. And similar to the decree that we should treat this as if it were impure, there is a decree that if one sprinkles Parah Adumah on him, we treat his as if he is no longer impure.

I think the same may be true for many other mitzvot. For example, why should the possession of split hooves and the ability to chew cud make an animal kosher, and lacking this ability make an animal unkosher? Rather, Hashem wants us to relate to these animals in this way, for whatever reason He has - as a decree. I believe this attitude forms a handy answer to some questions - to be treated in later posts.

3 comments:

yaak said...

I just learned this Midrash over Shabbat, and I was struck by it as well. (I first found it in Yalkut Shimoni, and then saw it in Midrash Rabba too.)

Nice analysis.

Ari said...

I believe that what Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was saying was this: There is no such thing as tum'a and tahara - impurity and purity. They are not physical, nor spiritual conditions. Rather, Hashem made a decree that we should relate to someone or something that has touched a corpse as if he was impure

Are you understanding that Rav Yochanan was saying that Tumah and Tahara do not actually exist solely in this scenario (but they do by say, a woman giving birth or Niddah)or that they never exist?

If the latter, then how could Bnei Yisroel "relate to someone as if he has impurity", if it is a made-up construct. What is impurity, according to this position? Is there an answer other than that the Torah was given to Bnei Yisroel, who understood that such things did exist either spiritually or physically, and G-d wrote the Torah with their previous beliefs and notions in mind. If so, it would come out that Rav Yochanan subscribed to this modern view :)

I think you may be conflating of what you hold and what Rav Yochanan held?

joshwaxman said...

That is more along the lines of what Shadal would say, or earlier, Rabbi Yosef Ibn Caspi, in his conception of dibra Torah.

Relating to tumah and taharah might be intended to be viewed through the halachic repercussions -- how we are to conduct ourselves. Of course, I would expect that tamei and tahor existed in cultural context, which would be the closest structural concept, and so this homonym was selected as an apt description.

I don't know that, as a pashtan, I would necessarily agree with Rabbi Yochanan.

kol tuv,
josh

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