Chukas: Beyond Logic
The mistake of the golden calf was in the people's attempt to attain Divine closeness through actions dictated by their own logic and reasoning...
by Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook zatza"l
Even King Solomon, renown for his great wisdom, failed to understand it. "I thought I would attain wisdom," he admitted, "but it is distant from me" (Ecclesiates 7:23).
What was it that eluded his powerful intellect? The Talmud in Nidah 9a explains that Solomon was referring to the Parah Adumah, the red heifer whose ashes were used for ritual purification. The inner meaning of this ritual is uniquely profound, beyond the grasp of the human intellect.
Why is this mitzvah so intellectually challenging?
Repairing the Sin of the Golden Calf
According to the Sages, the Parah Adumah comes to atone for the sin of the golden calf. The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8) explains this by way of parable: when the maidservant's son dirtied the king's palace, his mother needed to come and clean up the mess. Still, we need to understand the connection between the red heifer and the golden calf. After all, the golden calf was not born to a cow, but was formed out of gold jewelry donated by the people.
What is the essence of the sin of the golden calf? The Kuzari and other medieval commentaries explained that only when taking into account the unique spiritual level of the Jewish people at that time did their action count for a grievous offense. For other peoples, not only would it not have been deemed a sin, it might have even been considered a meritorious deed.
The people's motivation was sincere. They did not wish to abandon God. On the contrary, they sought to remain close to Him. They created an image — the prevalent form of worship at that time, like a synagogue nowadays — in order to have a physical manifestation through which they could direct their spiritual yearnings. Even those who erred by praying directly to the golden image did not abandon God. They clearly stated, "This, Israel, is your God, who brought you out of Egypt" (Ex. 32:8).
If so, what was their error? The mistake of the golden calf was in their attempt to attain Divine closeness through actions dictated by their own logic and reasoning. God specifically forbade this form of worship. The image they created — despite their good intentions — contradicted God's command, and became an obstacle for those who worshipped the Golden Calf as an actual idol.
Understanding God's Rule
Why did God 'lock the gate' before the human mind? What would be so terrible if we could add new mitzvot and make changes in existing ones, using methods that, our according to our understanding and wisdom, would allow us to become closer to God?
If we want to know what God wants, we need to carefully examine His actions and the ways by which He governs the world. Theoretically, the astute should be able to discern wonderful aspects of God's rule of the universe, and thereby understand His ways and Divine Will. This would work fine had God organized creation in such a way that all of the paths leading to the final goal reflect Divine perfection. Then all aspects of the universe would grant an accurate understanding of God and His ways, allowing us to recognize the proper way to serve Him.
God, however, in His extraordinary wisdom, organized the universe differently. He decreed that purity might be the end result of impure paths. Even those means that negate God's Will lead towards the final goal. Thus, it is impossible to deduce what God truly wants from the ways of the world. Our service of God can only be guided by those actions that God transmitted through His Torah.
Acknowledging Our Limitations
How does this relate to the purifying ashes of the red heifer? Clearly, ritual purity and impurity is a matter of closeness or distance from God's enlightenment. True purity is the ability to draw near to God and fulfill His will. Death, on the other hand, is a prime source of impurity. Death is an example of a phenomenon in the world that is diametrically opposed to the genuine intention of God, Who desires life. A person examining this phenomenon solely on the basis of cold logic would deduce the exact opposite of God's true intention in the world.
How do we purify ourselves from the impurity of death? To correct the misleading impression of death, we need to recognize the limits of the human intellect in truly comprehending God's rule in the world. By performing the ritual of Parah Adumah, a mitzvah that, by definition, is beyond human logic, we acknowledge the limitations of our intellectual grasp, and avoid the pitfall of inferring God's ways from the phenomenon of death.
Now we can also understand why those who prepare the purifying ashes of the red heifer become defiled in the process. Just as God's Will cannot be deduced from the ways of the world, only from the final goal, so too the means of the Parah Adumah are impure, and only the end result brings purification.
adapted from Midbar Shur, pp. 317-320
Rabbi Avraham Isaac Kook zatza"l, the celebrated first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel, (1865-1935) is recognized as being among the most important Jewish thinkers of all time. His writings reflect the mystic's search for underlying unity in all aspects of life and the world, and his unique personality similarly united a rare combination of talents and gifts.
Rav Kook was a prominent rabbinical authority and active public leader, but at the same time a deeply religious mystic. He was both Talmudic scholar and poet, original thinker and saintly tzaddik.
Rabbi Chanan Morrison of Mitzpeh Yericho runs http://ravkookTorah.org, a website dedicated to presenting the Torah commentary of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, first Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael, to the English-speaking community. He is also the author of Gold from the Land of Israel (Urim Publications, 2006).