Body and Soul

Rabbi Bernie Fox

And Hashem said to Moshe and Aharon saying, “This is the law that Hashem commanded saying, take for you a perfectly red heifer that does not have a blemish and that has not born a yoke.”  (Sefer BeMidbar 19:1-2) 

I. Who takes the Parah?

These passages introduce the Torah’s discussion of the Parah Adumah – the Red Heifer.  This cow is slaughtered outside of the Mishcan or Bait HaMikdash – the Tabernacle or the Sacred Temple. Blood from the slaughtered cow is sprinkled toward the Mishcan or Bait HaMikdash.  No part of the cow is offered on the altar.  Instead, it is completely burned.  Its ashes are collected and used to restore purity to someone defiled through contact or association with a dead body.

In English, the phrase “for you” expresses the second person singular or plural.  If I say, “This is for you” I may be referring to a single individual or to a collection of people.  In Hebrew, different phrases are used for the singular and the plural.  In the above passages, Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon, “Take for you a perfectly red heifer.”  Hashem uses the phrase “VaYikchu aiylecha.”  This is the singular version of “take for you.” 

Hashem is addressing Moshe and Aharon.  Yet, His instruction to take a completely red heifer is expressed in the singular.  He is instructing one of them to take the heifer.  Who is Hashem instructing?  

The most reasonable response is that Hashem is addressing Aharon.  The Kohanim – the Priests – are responsible for the preparation of the Parah – the Heifer.  Aharon is their leader.  It makes sense for Hashem to tell Aharon to secure the cow that will be used.1   

II. Moshe has a special role

This is not Rashi’s position.  Rashi explains that Hashem is addressing Moshe.  He is to take the cow that will be used.  Rashi adds that in all future generations this mitzvah will be associated with Moshe.  When the preparation of the ashes is performed, Moshe’s Parah will be recalled.  These future preparations will be described as duplications of the initial Parah processed by Moshe.2

Eliyahu of Vilna – the Gaon of Vilna – cites this pasuk as the source for an odd halachah.  Rashi explains that a portion of the ashes from the Parah processed under Moshe’s direction was added to the ashes of future Parot—Red Heifers.3  Why was this done?  The Gaon explains that the source for this practice is our passages.  Hashem associates the mitzvah specifically with Moshe.  As Rashi explains, all future Parot will be treated as duplicates or extensions of Moshe’s Parah.  The inclusion of the ashes of Moshe’s Parah among those of future Parot connects these Parot to Moshe’s.4   

In summary, this first Parah was associated with Moshe.  It is called Moshe’s Parah.  All future Parot would be treated as its duplicate.  The connection between Moshe’s Parah and future Parot was further emphasized by including the ashes of Moshe’s Parah among those of future Parot.  But why was this first Parah connected to Moshe? 

III. The first Parah was unique

The connection cannot be based on Moshe receiving the commandment from Hashem.  Moshe received all the commandments not just the mitzvah of Parah.  The connection is not because Moshe processed this first Parah.  He did not.  The process was performed by Aharon’s son Elazar. Moshe’s role was supervisory.  He instructed and Elazar carried out Moshe’s instructions.

Netziv – Rav Naftali Tzvi Berlin – suggests two solutions to this problem.  His first solution is that this first Parah was unique.  Elazar who was Aharon’s s’gan – his lieutenant or assistant – was required to process it.  This was not a requirement for future generations.  It was not necessary for the s’gan to process the Parah.  In other words, this first Parah was not produced according to the halachah that would govern future Parot.  The deviations from the normative requirements were accepted and followed on Moshe’s authority.  Therefore, this first Parah is referred to as Moshe’s Parah.  Future Parot conform to the Torah’s requirements.  This Parah was processed according to special instructions that rested on Moshe’s authority.   

IV. The Parah as an atonement

Netziv offers a second explanation of Moshe’s connection to the Parah.  He bases his response on a contradiction in the Talmud.  The Talmud in Yoma contrasts the Yom Kippur service with the Parah process.  It explains that the Yom Kippur service is an atonement.  The Parah process is not.5  The Parah restores purity.  However, the Talmud in Moed Katan observes that the Torah juxtaposes the mitzvah of Parah with the death of Miryam.  It explains that this teaches us that the death of the righteous atones just as the Parah atones.6  In other words, the Talmud in Yoma suggests that the Parah is not an atonement but in Moed Katan it describes the Parah as an atonement. Netziv explains that the Talmud in Yoma refers to the Parot of future generations.  These were not brought as atonements.  Their purpose was to restore purity.  However, the Talmud in Moed Katan refers to this first Parah.  This Parah was unique.  It not only restored purity; it also was an atonement for the Egel HaZahav – the Golden Calf.  

This explains the connection between Moshe and this Parah.  After the sin of the Egel, Moshe interceded with Hashem to rescue the Jewish people.  He beseeched Hashem to not abandon and destroy the nation.  Hashem accepted Moshe’s prayers and spared the nation.  This first Parah was part of the atonement for that terrible sin.  Moshe secured this opportunity to atone for the Egel.  He deserves to be associated with this Parah.  His petitions made possible its atonement.7   

These explanations address why this first Parah was associated with Moshe.  But they do not explain Rashi’s comment that future Parot would be described as duplicates of Moshe’s.  These explanations contradict Rashi!  This first Parah was different than all future Parot.  They are not duplicates of this first Parah.  Neither do these explanations account for the practice of including a sample of the ashes of this first Parah in all others. 

V. Moshe’s understanding of the mitzvah

Gur Aryeh – Rav Yehuda Loew of Prague – suggests an explanation for Moshe’s special connection to the first Parah.  His explanation is based upon the Midrash Rabbah.  The Midrash explains that only Moshe fully understood the rationale of the mitzvah.8  Even the greatest sages of future generations were bewildered by the mitzvah. When he directed Elazar, Moshe understood the meaning of the mitzvah and the significance of its details.  Future generations performed the mitzvah according to its specifications.  But they were perplexed by its mysteries.  They did not fully understand its rationale.  They could not explain why the Torah invests the ashes of the Parah with the capacity to purify.  They were baffled by some of the mitzvah’s odd details.   

Gur Aryeh explains that because of his unique understanding of the mitzvah, Parah is associated with Moshe.  He adds that because Elazar performed the mitzvah under his direction, this mitzvah was executed at a higher level.  In other words, our understanding of a mitzvah directly impacts its performance.  This is not because we are more scrupulous or exact in execution.  It is because the performance is an expression of our understanding.9  It is not a rote action; it is an expression of our soul and body united in the performance of the mitzvah.  

These comments also explain why future Parot are referred to as duplicates of Moshe’s.  It is not because the Parot are equal to Moshe’s Parah.  They are not.  We do not have Moshe’s profound understanding of the mitzvah.  Instead, when the Parot are processed, we recall Moshe’s Parah and recognize that the new Parah is an attempt to emulate Moshe.  His Parah is the standard.  We cannot recreate his Parah but it is the standard we seek.   

The inclusion of ashes from Moshe’s Parah reflects its perfection.  A new Parah is not equal to Moshe’s.  To connect the new Parah to Moshe’s, the ashes of his perfect Parah are added to the new ashes.   

VI. Full engagement in a mitzvah

The implication of these comments is obvious.  Our understanding of a mitzvah enhances its performance.  Understanding the mitzvah’s laws and its meaning enhances our performance.  This is not because we better conform to its halachic requirements.  It is a higher performance because we unite our minds – our souls – with the physical performance. 

1 See Rabbaynu Chizkiya ben Manoach (Chizkuni), Commentary on Sefer Bemidbar, 19:2. He seems to adopt this interpretation. 

2 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 19:2. 

3 Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Yoma 4a. 

4 Rabbaynu Eliyahu of Vilna, Aderet Eliyahu on Sefer BeMidbar 19:2. 

5 Mesechet Yoma 3b.  The Talmud’s comment leaves room for interpretation.  But according to Netziv’s interpretation, the Talmud’s intent is that the Parah is not an atonement.   

6 Mesechet Moed Katan 28a. 

7 Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin (Netziv), Commentary Hamek Davar on Sefer BeMidbar 19:2.  See also Rashi’s Midrashic interpretation following 19:22. 

8 Midrash Rabba Sefer Bemidbar 19:6. 

9 Rav Yehuda Loew of Prague (Maharal), Gur Aryeh Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 19:2.