Judaism: Parshat Para: The Cow Says "Trust Me"
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It is a rare person who does not fear death, who will "laugh on the last day." (Mishlei 31) With the rite of the Parah Adumah, though, the Torah prescribes a method for mitigating our fear of matters moribund.
The Parah Adumah purifies people from contact with death: A red cow is killed, and then the carcass is incinerated. [This does not happen frequently; the ash of a parah adumah lasts for generations, so that only nine parot adumot have been used in history.] A small amount of the ash is placed into specially prepared water, and that water is sprinkled on a person who has become impure from contact with death.
The Jews learned about this Parah Adumah ritual twice, and elements of each appearance demonstrate that this ritual is meant, at least in part, to help us overcome fear.
First: After the Jews crossed through Yam Suf, they traveled for three days without fresh water. Finally, they arrived at an oasis called Marah, only to find that the water was not potable. Frightened, the Jews asked Moshe what they would drink, and G-d showed Moshe how to sweeten the water. Then, we are told, the Jews were taught statutes and laws; Rashi says that this includes the laws of parah adumah. The parah adumah is eternally linked to the thirst of Marah.
Second: This week, as we learn the specific laws of the parah adumah in Parshat Parah, the sages link this ritual with the sin of the Golden Calf. When Moshe disappeared atop Har Sinai, the people feared that they had lost their link with the Divine, and they created a calf as a substitute. We use a cow for purification in order to counter that idolatrous calf; as one midrash on our parshah (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8) phrases it, "This may be compared to a maid's son, who dirtied the king's palace. The king decreed: Let the mother come and clean up her son's filth. So G-d said: Let the cow come and atone for the deed of the calf."
There is another link between Parah Adumah and these two events: Marah and the Golden Calf provide the basic components of the Parah Adumah ritual. We burn the cow's carcass and reduce it to ash, reminiscent of the Calf which was burned and then ground into ash. (Shemot 32:20) We introduce the ash into water, reminiscent of the water at Marah as well as the dissolution of the Calf's ash in water. We then sprinkle this mixture on a person who has been intimate with death.
Inserting the laws of Parah Adumah into the Marah and Calf incidents, and adopting elements of each story into the Parah Adumah ritual, hint that these three entities share a common message of trust:
- Our fear regarding the lack of potable water was empty: Trust in G-d.
- Our fear regarding the disappearance of G-d at Sinai was empty: Trust in G-d.
- And our fear regarding death is also empty: Trust in G-d.
The Torah underscores this message by connecting the Parah Adumah's two appearances with Miriam, as well. Miriam led the Jewish women in song immediately before the Torah's account of Marah, and Miriam's death is recorded immediately following the description of the Parah Adumah in our parshah.
Miriam was all of six years old, apprenticed to her mother as a midwife, when the Egyptian Pharaoh ordered the two of them to kill all of the Jewish baby boys. As the Talmud (Sotah 11b) emphasizes, Miriam and her mother trusted G-d with their lives, defied Pharaoh and saved the babies. Miriam trusted G-d with her life when she addressed the daughter of the Pharaoh on behalf of Moshe, when he was found in his basket on the river. And so Miriam's leadership precedes the first Parah Adumah, and the conclusion of Miriam's story follows the Parah Adumah, as a lesson for all of us to trust G-d and so override our own fear of death.
In 1969, with the entire world of their day as well as future generations watching, three Americans conquered their fear of the unknown, landing on the Moon in the Apollo 11 mission. They used training and simulators to reduce the unknown; as Buzz Aldrin wrote, “True fear is the fear of the unknown, and all our training had been geared towards eliminating the unknown as much as possible.”
When a human being confronts death, he can't eliminate the unknown; there is no "death simulator" available. Nonetheless, the message of the Parah Adumah, this opaque law which defies rational explanation, is this: Trust Me. Just as Hashem was at our side at the waters of Marah, and just as Hashem was present at Sinai, and just as Hashem was present for Miriam, so Hashem will be with us now to protect us.