Accepting the Inexplicable
Moshe Rabbeinu - Moses our master - ascends the mountain while the people remain behind. Forty days pass, and panic sets in. Under the influence of the mixed multitude, the children of Israel approach Aharon, saying:
"'Up, make us a god who shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man that brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we know not what is become of him.'" (Exodus 32:1)
The result? The golden calf. What really transpired here? Did the very same nation that witnessed the ten plagues, the splitting of the sea, and the revelation at Mount Sinai actually believe in the alleged divinity of a lump of gold that they themselves had formed? What had begun with a simple miscalculation of time ended in a debacle that would echo throughout the ages.
Actually, the mistake of the desert generation shouldn't seem so strange to us. It is one, in fact, which we are in constant danger of repeating. What they were yearning for was a god that they could point to, that they could touch. Physically, yes, but more to the point, intellectually. They yearned for a god whose ways they could understand, whose attributes they could measure, whose justice they could comprehend. When you come right down to it, such a god can only be the work of our own hands, the fruit of our own imaginations.
We are taught by our sages that the parah adumah - the red heifer - is a means with which we can rectify the sin of the golden calf. What common thread ties these two distinct entities together, one an error of historic proportions, and one, a commandment concerning the Torah precept of spiritual purity? King Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes, wrote, "I said, 'I will become wise, but it is far from me.'" (Ecclesiastes. 7:23) Midrash tells us that King Solomon is referring to none other than the chok - statute - of the parah adumah itself: How can it be that the very same ashes of the red heifer which possess the incredible power to make clean all those who have been rendered unclean, when brought in contact with those who are pure has the opposite effect... rendering them unclean! It is inexplicable, incomprehensible, unfathomable! By forming the golden calf, the children of Israel thought they could begin to fathom G-d's ways, that they could reach an intellectual height on a par with G-d's infinite wisdom. The red heifer comes along and teaches us that even the simplest of G-d's commandments defies our puny intellects.
Perhaps a question which bothers many of us today much more that the mystery of the red heifer, is the age old question: why do bad things happen to good people, and why do the wicked seem to flourish on this earth? Where is G-d's justice? How can we understand it? This is what Moses himself sought clarification on when, asking G-d's forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf, he beseeched Him, saying, "'Show me, I pray You, Your glory.'" (Exodus 33:18) Yet G-d answered, "'You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.'," (ibid 33:213) instead offering: "'Behold, there is a place by Me, and you will stand upon the rock. And it shall come to pass, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand until I have passed by. And I will take away My hand, and you will see My back; but My face shall not be seen.'" (ibid 33:22-23)
We are obliged to question and search and seek out G-d's way to the best of our abilities. But ultimately, we must accept that the essence of G-d cannot be boiled down into a lump of gold, or into a notion easily contained within our limited minds. To imagine otherwise is as grievous an error as that of the golden calf.
To learn more about the mysteries of the parah adumah, and the events that transpire in this past week's Torah reading of Ki Tisa, be sure to join Rabbi Chaim Richman and Yitzchak Reuven on this week's TEMPLE TALK.
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