Para Aduma and the Reasons for Mitzvot

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


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PARASHAT SHEMINI – PARASHAT PARA

SICHA OF HaRav AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

Para Aduma and the Reasons for Mitzvot

Summarized by Howard Geyer

Para aduma (the red heifer) is the paradigm of incomprehensible mitzvot. An examination of Chazal's approach to this mitzva can teach much about their understanding of ta'amei ha-mitzvot, the enterprise of offering reasons for the commandments.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 19:5) relates:

Rabbi Yehoshu'a of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: There are four things that the yetzer ha-ra (evil impulse) ridicules, and which the Torah calls "chukka": the mitzvot of a brother's wife, of kilayim (mixed species), of the se'ir ha-mishtaleiach (scapegoat), and of the para aduma.

A brother's wife, as is written, "Thou shalt not uncover the nakedness of thy brother's wife" (Vayikra 18:16), yet when a woman is widowed without children, "Her brother-in-law shall marry her" (Devarim 25:5)! And regarding a brother's wife, the Torah employs the term "chukkotai" (Vayikra 20:22).

Kilayim, as it is written, "Thou shalt not wear wool and linen together" (Devarim 22:11), yet a linen garment with woolen tzitzit is permitted! And here, too, the Torah uses the term "chukkotai" (Vayikra 19:19).

Se'ir ha-mishtaleiach, as it is written, "And he who sends the goat to Azazel shall wash his clothing" (Vayikra 16:26), yet the scapegoat itself atones for others! And this mitzva is also designated "chukkat" (Vayikra 16:34).

Para aduma, based upon the mishna (Para 4:4), "All who are involved in the para from beginning to end have their garments become impure," while the para itself renders garments pure! Here, too, the Torah applies the word "chukkat" (Bamidbar 19:1).

This midrash describes the internally inconsistent duality of these four chukkim. A brother's wife and kilayim simultaneously contain elements of both issur and heter (prohibition and permission), while the se'ir ha-mishtaleiach and para aduma are characterized by the coexistence of purity and impurity.

Such inherent "contradictions," which vex the yetzer ha-ra, can be contrasted with ones which trouble the heathen in another midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 19:8):

A certain heathen asked Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, "These rituals [of the para aduma] that you perform appear like witchcraft. You take a cow, burn it, pound it, and take its ashes. If one of you becomes impure from a dead body, you sprinkle upon him two or three drops, and say to him, 'You are pure!'"

R. Yochanan answered him, "Have you ever ... seen a person possessed by the demon of madness?"

Said the heathen, "Yes."

"What do you do for him?"

"We bring roots, and make them smoke under him, and sprinkle water upon the demon to exorcise it."

Said R. Yochanan, "Let your ears hear what you utter with your mouth! The spirit of impurity is exactly like this demon... Water of purification is sprinkled upon the person made impure by contact with a corpse, and the spirit flees."

When the heathen had left, R. Yochanan's disciples asked him, "Our master! Him you dismissed with a flimsy excuse (Heb. 'kaneh'), but what explanation do you offer us?"

He said to them, "By your lives! It is not the corpse that makes one impure, nor the water that makes one pure. Rather, the Holy One, Blessed be He, declared, 'A chukka I have enacted, a decree I have issued; you may not violate my decree,' as it is written, 'This is the chukka of the Torah' (Bamidbar 19:2)."

Here the question is motivated not by intrinsic inconsistencies in the nature of the mitzva, but rather by the perception of para aduma as contrary to the rational, cause-and-effect nature of the world. The heathen fails to grasp the true nature of mitzvot, and instead tries to assimilate ta'amei ha-mitzvot into his mechanistic understanding of the universe. For him, any mitzva is performed only for an appreciable benefit, a purpose. By drawing a parallel to the "demon of madness," R. Yochanan answers the heathen within his own schema, emphasizing the goal-directed aspects of the mitzva.

In the continuation of the midrash, the disciples of R. Yochanan demand a better answer, unwilling to accept the apologetics offered to the idolater. The use of the expression "kaneh" suggests not only that the answer to the heathen was superficial, but also that the disciples realize that not every mitzva lends itself to a purposive explanation. "Kaneh" means not just "reed" but also "trachea;" the laws of shechita require that, when slaughtering an animal, one must ensure that the trachea be severed more than halfway. No purely goal-oriented account of ta'amei ha-mitzvot can explain why a 49% penetration is invalid while a 51% section is kosher. Unlike the heathen, the disciples are not constrained to understand each individual mitzva as yielding a perceptible benefit, and they press their teacher for a deeper explanation.

R. Yochanan assures his students that, indeed, ta'amei ha-mitzvot are not to be construed purposively. Rather, the only reason to perform mitzvot is that God decreed that we do so. As Vayikra Rabba 13:3 (on Parashat Shemini) states, "Rav said, 'The mitzvot were given to Israel only in order that mankind might be improved by them.'" This midrash (like the Rambam's approach in The Guide of the Perplexed, but unlike that of the Kabbalists) reflects the opinion that the procedural details of specific mitzvot are not always subject to rational explanation. Not every component of every mitzva can be reduced to a goal-directed reason or assigned a purpose. The idea behind mitzvot is the performance of God's will, for the eventual betterment of mankind, and individual mitzvot do not necessarily hold up to a compositional analysis.

Finally, there is a danger in resorting to potential benefits of mitzvot when explaining mitzvot to others. Although adherence to the laws of family purity may be believed to protect against cervical cancer, and avoidance of pork products may reduce risk of trichinosis, these are not the reasons for these mitzvot. Such rationales are dependent upon current opinions, and the possibility of contradictory empirical observations in the future threatens to invalidate such accounts. Mitzvot should never be presented as principally yielding direct benefit, as such conceptions are transitory, while mitzvot and ta'amei ha-mitzvot are eternal.

(The sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Parashat Shemini-Parashat Para 5755 [1995].)