“The Cohen shall take cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson thread,
and he shall throw them into the burning of the cow.” (Numbers 19:6)
Parashat Chukat opens with a mysterious and puzzling command. Moses and Aaron are to find a 100% pure red cow. Once it is slaughtered and prepared, its ashes are to be used for a purification ritual. The mystery is that while the ashes will purify someone who has come into contact with a corpse, they will render impure anyone else who touches them. The puzzle is why the classic commentators consider this ritual law THE decree of the Torah.
Rabbi Abraham Twerski (1930- ; an American chassidic rabbi and psychiatrist specializing in substance abuse) applies the paradox of the red heifer to the study of Torah. In one place, the Talmud states Torah can be studied for ulterior motives because it may lead to study for its own sake (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 50b). Elsewhere, however, the Talmud states that someone studying the Torah for ulterior motives should never have been born (Jerusalem Talmud Shabbat 1-2). According to Twerski, this apparent contradiction refers to two separate situations. In the first case, someone who is completely unfamiliar with the Torah can’t be expected to study it for its own sake. However, someone who is familiar with the Torah, yet studies it only with an eye to personal gain, misuses the Torah in destructive ways. In this way, the red heifer represents the Torah writ large: the outcome depends upon your circumstance.
It is unusual to describe the Torah as a potentially destructive force. Twerski’s insight is a reminder of the power of personal intent; in the end, the Torah is what you make of it.
Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom,