Parshas Parah: From Ashes To Renewal

Several years ago, I had the zechus to stand at the very spot – the notorious seventh fort – where Rav Elchonon Wasserman was murdered al kiddush Hashem. In the presence of a minyan of rabbonim, mashgichim and roshei yeshiva, I shared some of Rav Elchonon’s Torah and the descriptions that have come down to us of his brutal slaughter. The tragic date was Sunday, the 11th of Tammuz, one day after the reading of Parshas Chukas, the source of Parshas Parah. The tzaddikim who survived that barbaric moment later recalled the searing words of the Gemara (Moed Koton 24a) that the halacha of the parah adumah is recorded in the Torah right after the passing of Miriam to teach us that just as the red cow brings kapparah – expiation – so does the death of tzaddikim. Those who survived to describe the scene testified that Rav Elchonon looked like a radiant angel of Hashem, to the point that one of the Nazis ymsh was frightened enough to whimper “perhaps we should leave him alone” (Rabbi Aharon Sorasky, Ohr Elchonon, 282-283).

Just a few short years later, on Shabbos Parshas Chukas 5714 (1954), when the Ponovezher Rov was trying to rebuild Torah in Eretz Yisroel after churban Europa, he was about to introduce one of the roshei yeshiva who was doing the same in America, Rav Aharon Kotler, to speak in the new yeshiva. The Rov first cited a Medrash (Yalkut Shimoni) on Parshas Parah. “The posuk says,” intoned the emotional former rov of the now-decimated city of Ponovezh, ‘Someone shall burn the cow before his eyes.’ The Medrash teaches that this refers to Nevuchadnetzar, who burnt the house of Hashem and the palace of the king. The posuk goes on to describe that ‘its hide and its flesh and its blood…shall he burn.’ That, says the Medrash, refers to all the houses of Yerushalayim and the great house he burnt as well. The Medrash asks, ‘Why did he call that edifice the great house?’ The Medrash answers that ‘this refers to the bais medrash of Rav Yochonon Ben Zakai, where they would describe and proclaim the greatness of Hashem.’ “The Yalkut continues to expound the pesukim. ‘He shall take cedar wood, hyssop and crimson thread and he shall throw them into the burning of the cow.’ The Medrash states that this, too, refers to Nevuchadnetzar, who threw Chananiah, Mishoel and Azariah into the fire. He took the best of Klal Yisroel and threw them to their apparent death in the fire. The Medrash concludes, ‘A pure man shall gather the ash of the cow and place it…in a pure place.The Yalkut teaches that this refers to Hashem, who shall take the exiles of Klal Yisroel and place them in a holy place, which is Yerushalayim, the place of purity.”

Just nine years after the end of the Churban, the Ponovezher Rov was declaring that mesivtos and yeshivos, the Chananiah, Mishoel and Azariahs, would be rescued from the destruction to rebuild and restore the lost glory and sanctity. This, too, was on Shabbos Parshas Chukas (see Rav Moshe Mordechai Shulsinger’s Kuntres Ashrei Mi Shegadol BaTorah, quoted in Ohel Moshe, Hamikdosh Vehagolus, page 420). The Maharal reminds us over and over that “important things are never random.” The connection of these events to Parshas Chukas and Parshas Parah is profound and important to our lives. Let us, therefore, explore a bit of the meaning and significance of this week’s flaming maftir.

There is a baffling Medrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:3) that Chazal use to introduce Parshas Parah: “When Hashem was teaching the Torah to Moshe Rabbeinu, He related to him each form of tumah (defilement) and how it could become purified. When they reached Parshas Emor (the laws of tumah from a corpse), Moshe asked, ‘Master of the Universe, if someone becomes defiled in this way, what will bring about his purification?’ Hashem did not answer him. At that moment, Moshe Rabbeinu’s face became yellow with shame. However, when they reached the parsha of the parah adumah, Hashem said, “When I taught you the laws of the kohanim (Parshas Emor) and you asked about its purification, I did not answer you. But now, you should know that that ‘they shall take for the contaminated person some of the ashes of the burning chatas.’

One must wonder why Hashem delayed teaching Moshe about the parah adumah and even made it seem initially that there was no remedy at all. Perhaps the answer may be seen in the words of Rav Gedaliah Schorr (Ohr Gedalyahu, Parshas Parah, page 56) that “the purification power of the parah adumah flows from the Tree of Life, which is higher than the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Bad.” This seems to reflect the status of the parah adumah as the paradigm of all that is so esoteric that it is beyond any human comprehension. Thus, its efficacy is above “knowledge,” since its source supersedes all human intellect and cognition.

As Rav Schorr later (page 112) quotes from the Izhbitzer Rebbe (Mei Hashiloach, Chukas), “the parah adumah demonstrates that there is no negative (he’edar) in the life of a Jew. Even death [which seems to be the ultimate negative] is only destructive to the naked eye. In this world, many things seem to be negative because Hashem has hidden His light…but in truth nothing in this world is worthless, for whatever exists in the life of a Jew flows from His Will alone.” It seems that Hashem wanted Moshe Rabbeinu to contemplate the potential disaster of a tumah that could not be purified so that he would be able to convey to Klal Yisroel appreciation for the incredible gift of the parah adumah.

As Rav Moshe Wolfson (Emunas Itecha, Parshas Parah, page 305) writes, “Whenever the yearning for geulah arises, the forces of antagonism to redemption, claiming that we are unworthy, arise as well. Nevertheless, the parah adumah saves us, for just as we uphold it without understanding, so are we granted geulah without logic as well. Thus, Parshas Parah is followed by Parshas Hachodesh and the redemption of Pesach and beyond.”

The Sefas Emes (Parshas Parah 5647), too, points out that Chazal (Megillah 29a) ordained that we read Parshas Parah before the month of Nissan. This is so that the purity that reaches the Jewish people with Parshas Parah enables us to take advantage of the renewal that arrives with the month of Nissan. This concept follows the idea that the reading itself of Parshas Parah brings about our purification (Ohr Gedalyahu, page 114). We can now begin to understand why Parshas Parah always appears when we need it to assuage our concerns and deepening near-depression over our spiritual and physical state. It is the parah adumah that reminds us and gives us the chizuk to realize that all is never lost. Even rampant death and destruction can be overcome when we return to the fount of both our purification and revival as a people. It is actually when we are at our lowest condition, when like our ancestor Avrohom Avinu we declare, “I am but dirt and ashes,” that we merit the parah adumah (Chulin 89a). For this reason, Moshe Rabbeinu, too, had to experience that sense of momentary hopelessness and despair for which there appeared to be no remedy. Then, when Hashem lifted Moshe out of his dread and gloom, he was able to convey to Klal Yisroel that there is always hope.

As Rav Tzadok often teaches us, our ultimate goal is finding Hashem in the darkness, not just in the light (see Micha 6:8). My rebbi, Rav Yitzchok Hutner (Maamorei Pachad Yitzchok, Sukkos, Maamar 52), also taught us that it is easy to appreciate Hashem when all is perfect. It is in the difficulties that we truly connect with our Creator. The parah adumah is our annual light in the darkness that demonstrates that geulah is not far behind. All we need to do is trust, believe and do our very best. Then Hashem will purify us and prepare us for the amazing process of geulah just ahead, bimeheirah beyomeinu.