The Power of Purity Also Exists Today
The mitzvah of the “red heifer” has no logical reason behind it. It is called a chukah, as the Sages have taught: “The Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel by saying, ‘What is this command and what reason is there for it?’ The Holy One, blessed be He, says: ‘I have laid down a statute; I have issued a decree! You cannot transgress My decree!’ ” True, the mitzvah of the red heifer is a decree that has neither a reason nor an explanation for it. Our Sages said that even King Solomon wanted to understand the reason behind it, and he thought that he might succeed. Yet in the end, he was forced to admit that it was beyond him and that he understood nothing, as he himself said: “I thought I could become wise, but it is beyond me” (Ecclesiastes 7:23).
All the same, we note several things in this mitzvah that are both amazing and surprising, things that may teach us lessons for daily living, even today. First of all, the heifer must be completely red, and even two black hairs will disqualify it. Why is this so? What does it matter if the color of its hide is not entirely red? Secondly, the heifer must never have been worked, as the verse says: “Upon which a yoke has not come” (Numbers 19:2). This also requires an explanation.
In addition, the Sages say that the ashes of the red heifer render the impure pure, and the pure impure. This means that when the ashes of the red heifer were sprinkled on a person who was impure, he was rendered pure. Yet at the same time, a pure person who came into contact with the ashes (or the one performing the sprinkling) was rendered impure. This is very odd. Why do we find something and its opposite here, since we could have inferred that because the ashes purify the impure, then they should certainly not render the pure impure, but rather leave him pure!
In addition to all this, we need to understand something fundamental. We know that the red heifer atones for the sin of the golden calf, as the Sages have said: “This may be illustrated by a parable. A handmaiden’s boy polluted the king’s palace. The king said: ‘Let his mother come and clear away the filth.’ In the same way the Holy One, blessed be He, said: ‘Let the heifer come and atone for the incident of the calf’ ” (Bamidbar Rabba 19:8). Now this seems difficult to understand, for we know that Hashem repays measure for measure, with the rectification being in exactly the same area as the sin. Now since the Children of Israel sinned by making the golden calf, the rectification of that sin should also have been done by a calf, not by a heifer (i.e., by a cow, which is the mother of a calf).
My friends, this teaches us that today also, in our generation, we can attain purity as during the time when the ashes of the red heifer were available. To purify and sanctify ourselves, we simply need for some prior conditions to be met.
An ordinary individual is filled with imperfections, be they sins, moral defects, or simply unpleasant character traits that he must correct. The sad thing, however, is that a person does not see his own shortcomings. He cannot really see his deficiencies. This is why the Torah comes and tells us that the heifer must be completely red, without the least amount of black hairs. This means that before all else, we must repair our inadequacies and become perfect and whole in our character traits and mitzvot performance. It is only in this way that we can achieve complete purification and sanctification, and as such we can come closer to Hashem.
In addition, a person must put a devoted effort into improving his character traits by firing himself up with enthusiasm for serving Hashem. This is alluded to by the color of the heifer, for red is a sign of fervor; it is the color of the sacred fire for serving the Creator. It is only with fervor that a person can achieve purity.
We also need to meet another condition: The red heifer must never have carried a yoke. Our Sages say, “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of Torah – the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly cares are removed from him” (Perkei Avoth 3:5). One who agrees to devote himself to the Torah and become purified through it, all obstacles in his service to Hashem are removed. If a person has not carried the yoke – that is, if he wears no other yoke, such as the yoke of materiality – and if he turns away from material concerns and the pleasures of this world, then the Holy One, blessed be He, gives him the yoke of Torah, and with it he purifies himself and comes closer to Hashem.
At the same time as all this, we must still remember a basic principle. It sometimes seems that we have perfected ourselves in all aspects of our service to Hashem, with nothing more to improve. In fact we may have already begun studying Torah, performing mitzvot, and conducting ourselves according to the dictates of the Torah and tradition. We may be giving to tzeddakah and helping people both through our direct efforts and our money, and therefore we may already seem perfect and without reproach, holy and pure without defect. We may even think that we already deserve a tiny part of Gan Eden, both below and above. This is why a certain detail regarding the law of the red heifer tells us that although its ashes can purify one who is impure and bring him closer to Hashem, its ashes can also make those who are pure – those who already consider themselves perfect, with nothing to improve – impure. The red heifer renders such a person impure, for he has no desire to sanctify or purify himself further, since he already thinks that he is perfect.
Above all, the last condition teaches us that the sin must be rectified not through the calf itself, but through its mother. This teaches us the power of our holy forefathers and the tzaddikim in every generation, for it is only by their merit that every Jew may sanctify and purify himself, and thus come closer to the Creator.
Let us adopt these principles as our own. Let us better ourselves by fervently correcting our defects, by completely accepting the yoke of Heaven – without allowing ourselves to think that we are already perfect – all while relying on the tzaddikim and our holy forefathers. In this way we will merit becoming truly pure and holy. Amen, may it be so!