Parashat Shemini: The Lesson of the Para Aduma
The section of Parashat Para, which speaks about the Para Aduma ("red heifer"), is read before Rosh Hodesh Nissan, because in the times of the Bet Ha’mikdash, the people would need to purify themselves in preparation for the Pesach sacrifice. The special water made with the ashes of the Para Aduma was used to purify people and objects that had become Tameh (impure) as a result of contact with a human corpse.
The Sages teach that the command of the Para Aduma was issued nearly a year after the Exodus from Egypt, at the beginning of the month of Nissan, at the time of the inauguration of the Mishkan. It was only at that point when these laws became relevant, as people in a state of Tum’a (impurity) were barred from entering the Mishkan and from partaking of the sacrifices offered there.
Interestingly, however, Beneh Yisrael actually learned about the Para Aduma earlier. As Rashi comments in Parashat Beshalah (Shemot 15:25), when Beneh Yisrael encamped in a place called Mara after crossing through the sea, G-d gave them a number of Misvot – one of them being the Misva of Para Aduma. Although this Misva would not become practically relevant until nearly a year later, nevertheless, they were taught this Misva already then.
The question naturally arises as to why this Misva was deemed significant enough to be one of the Misvot taught in Mara. The other Misvot, Rashi writes, were fundamental Torah precepts – Shabbat observance, and Dinim (the establishment of a just court system). But why was it important for Beneh Yisrael to learn about the Para Aduma already at that point, in Mara?
Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky (1891-1986) explained that Para Aduma constitutes the quintessential "Hok" – Misva whose rationale eludes human comprehension. The Torah commands taking a cow with very specific properties – it’s completely red, without physical defects, and has never been used for any work – and to burn it and mix its ashes with natural spring water. This water will then bring purity to people and articles that had become impure. There is no possibility of explaining the rationale for this concept. The Sages teach that even King Shlomo, the wisest of all men, conceded that he could not understand the reason behind this Misva.
This is why it was so important for Beneh Yisrael to learn this Misva at a very early stage, even before Matan Torah. As part of their preparation for Matan Torah, they needed to be shown that all Misvot – even those which appear to have a compelling rationale, and which we thus think we understand – must be observed out of a sense of submission and subservience to G-d, and not because we understand what they are intended to accomplish. Para Aduma, the quintessential "Hok," shows us how to approach all Misvot – as G-d’s commands which we humbly obey, regardless of whether or not we understand why He commanded them.
The anonymous Sefer Ha’hinuch is a work which lists all 613 Misvot (according to the Rambam’s counting), and suggests reasons for each one. The author writes openly that he presents these reasons only to help us better appreciate the Misva’s value, without claiming that they fully encapsulate the reasons behind Misvot. The Hebrew word for "reason," he notes, is "Ta’am," which also means "flavor." Uncovering reasons for Misvot enhances their "flavor," making their performance more meaningful. But just as a food product can be eaten and offers nutritional value even without seasoning, similarly, the Misvot are valuable and vitally important even if we do not understand their reasoning.
The Sages teach that Abraham Abinu ate Masa on Pesach. Quite obviously, he lived well before the Exodus from Egypt, which the Misva of Masa commemorates. The Brisker Rav (Rav Yitzhak Zev Soloveitchik, 1886-1959) noted that this shows that eating Masa on Pesach is intrinsically valuable simply because G-d commanded us to do so. Commemorating Yesiat Misrayim is but the "Ta’am," an additional element to the Misva, but the essence of the Misva of Masa is our humble subservience to the divine will.
This is the message of the Para Aduma – that we observe all of the Torah’s Misvot out of a sense of submission to Hashem’s authority, irrespective of whether or not we understand their reason.