Hukkat commentary, by Michael Graetz

Rabbi Michael Graetz

Rabbi Michael Graetz
From Pinah Masortit #135a (vol. 3) MASORTI@JTSA.EDU (Masorti: Torah and News from the Masorti Movement in Israel)
Masorti Movement
Rabbinical Assembly of Israel
4 Rav Ashi Street, Jerusalem, ISRAEL
The subject of the Parah Adumah ("red cow") is much in the news today (Num. 19:1ff). One of the more fascinating aspects of this parasha is the exegesis found in the tradition concerning the qualities of the red cow.
The Torah merely states: "Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid." (JPS, Num. 19:2) The translation smoothes over some of the ambiguities of the Hebrew. The phrase "temimah" in Hebrew is here translated "without blemish", yet tradition takes this to mean that the cow must be "perfectly red". The Hebrew "temimah" implies "wholeness", and the Oral Torah understood that the wholeness applies to the color of the cow. This is so, because the continuation of the verse, "in which there is no defect", which is taken to mean "without blemish". The rendering of the verse according to the Talmudic discussion would be: "Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow, wholly red, in which there is no defect....".
But, to my mind, the most fascinating aspect of how the red cow is conceived relates to the last quality, "asher lo alah aleha ol", "on which no yoke has been laid". The tradition immediately sees the connection between this quality and the similar command concerning the heifer which is used to atone for an unsolved murder ("eglah arufah"; Deut. 21:1ff.). The qualities used to describe the heifer are: "take a heifer which has never been worked ("asher lo `ubad bah"), which has never pulled in a yoke ("asher lo mashcha be-ol")" (Deut. 21:3). The Talmud, in its discussion on this topic makes it clear that the red cow is disqualified even if the yoke is merely placed on it, but it never really pulls it or does any work. (Sotah 46a ff.) Indeed, the discussion goes into great detail as to what constitutes "placing a yoke" on a red cow. This discussion is summarized by Rambam in the Mishneh Torah (parah adumah, 1:7).
Before I analyze the summary of the halacha on this issue, as presented by Rambam, let me try and grasp the issues behind the rulings. The red cow is a concretization of holiness ("kedusha") in the world. That is, the water of lustration made from the red cow enables one to move from a state of impurity to a state of purity. It is a physical symbol of the power of kedusha, the power which enables the change in state of being to a purer form of being. This is a crucial ingredient in existence. The power to be cleansed, to be sanctified or purified is essential to every person. Now comes the issue: can "kedusha" be yoked? What happens to "kedusha" if it is `controlled' by human desire, driven in a particular direction which one wishes for, exploited? The answer is it becomes disqualified, unfit, blemished.
"Kedusha" can cleanse us totally, but if we try to yoke it, to work it, it becomes unfit.
Just having the yoke placed on it, the mere attempt to control holiness, or just declaring that holiness is in someone's control renders it blemished. In Rambam's language, just tying the yoke on, without even plowing an inch, renders the red cow unfit.
Setting up a limit which is said to "guard" the red cow, ostensibly for its own good, renders it unfit. If the guarding is not really necessary, it is considered a burden like a yoke (Rambam, ibid.). Any unnecessary attempt to restrict holiness, to fence it in, leads to less holiness and not more. There may be necessary fences to prevent abuse of holiness, but adding strictness ("humrot") does not mean more kedusha, but rather less.
It is permitted to place one's garment on the red cow to guard it against flies, because that is for the welfare of the cow. But, if for any reason which does not directly help her, that makes the cow unfit (Rambam, ibid.). "Kedusha" to be unblemished must result in benefit for people, if a particular claim to kedusha does not benefit those to whom it is applied, but rather harms them or benefits others but not them, then it is a blemished kedusha.
What if the yoke falls on the cow by accident, it just happens to get there? If the owner likes this result, that is, it is consistent with what he wanted, then the cow is unfit (Rambam, ibid.). Kedusha which is seen as "useful" or "just what we wanted" is suspect.
The power of holiness, kedusha, the power to transform impurity to purity, must itself be holy and pure. If it is sullied with desire for acquisition or power, or with commercialization, or even with intent to safeguard itself unnecessarily, it becomes a disqualified holiness, which removes one farther away from God and purity, causing no real change.

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