Parashat Hukat: We Do Not Understand Everything
Parashat Hukat begins with the law of the “Para Aduma,” the red cow whose ashes were used for the preparation of special waters that purified those who came in contact with a human corpse.
Rashi, in his commentary to this Parasha, cites Rabbi Moshe Ha’darshan as explaining the symbolic meaning of this Misva, which he says served to atone for the sin of the golden calf. Just as a mother is responsible to clean the mess made by infant, similarly, the cow – the mother – must “clean” the “mess” of the young calf. Symbolically, this means that the law of Para Aduma atones for the sin of the golden calf.
What is the connection between the Para Aduma and the golden calf? Why would specifically the Misva of Para Aduma atone for this sin?
The Kedushat Siyon (by Rav Bentzion Halberstam of Bobov, 1874-1941) explains that the golden calf was precipitated by Beneh Yisrael’s bewilderment when Moshe did not return from atop Mount Sinai at the time they had expected. They turned to Aharon and said about Moshe Rabbenu, “Lo Yadanu Meh Haya Lo” – “We do not know what happened to him” (Shemot 32:1). They miscalculated the time of Moshe’s anticipated return, and so they did not understand what happened to him. This lack of knowledge, the feeling of “Lo Yadanu,” that they did not understand what was happening, led them to reject everything Moshe told them and embrace an entirely different religion.
This is, unfortunately, an all-too-common phenomenon. When people have questions, when there is a Halacha they don’t understand, or when something happens to them for which we have no explanation, they reject everything. The moment they experience “Lo Yadanu,” there is something that do not understand, they turn their backs on our religion.
The atonement for this son, the Kedushat Siyon explains, is the Para Aduma, the quintessential “Hok” – law which we do not and cannot understand. Our Sages teach that even King Shlomo, the wisest man who ever lived, could not explain how the ashes of a red cow can divest a person of his status of impurity. This is simply a law that we accept because it was given to us by our perfect, flawless G-d. We atone for the mistake of the golden calf, of rejecting religion when we fail to understand, by embracing the law of Para Aduma, a law which we can never understand.
This is an especially important lesson in the “Google Age,” when we have grown accustomed to being able to instantly find answers to everything. People today feel empowered by having so much information accessible at all times. Whenever we need some information, we pull out our phones and find what we need in a matter of a few seconds. This easy access to so much information can make us feel as though we can understand everything. And so when there is something in Judaism that eludes our comprehension, that does not seem to make sense to us, we are tempted to cynically reject the entire system.
But the truth is that there is plenty that we do not and cannot understand.
Once, when delivering a class about this subject to a group of students, a girl told me she disagreed, and that she cannot accept or observe a Misva which she could not understand. I asked her, “When you have a headache, do you take a Tylenol?”
She answered in the affirmative.
“Do you understand how the Tylenol works? Do you understand how it relieves your headache?”
She confessed that she did not.
“If you can trust the pharmaceutical company’s word that the pills will alleviate your pain,” I said, “then you can also trust our tradition that the Misvot are beneficial for us.”
As much information as we have at our fingertips, there is still so much which we do not understand. Do we understand how our bodies work, how our digestive system processes food? When we step into an airplane, do we understand how it flies through the sky?
The law of the Para Aduma reminds us to humbly accept our limitations, to acknowledge that there is still so much we don’t know. Compared to G-d, we know absolutely nothing, no matter how much information we are able to access on the internet. And so we must unconditionally and joyfully embrace and observe all His laws, trusting that there is very good reason why G-d commanded them, even if we do not understand.