The Ashes of Life
By Roy S. Neuberger
Recently, while attending a wedding, my wife and I met a security guard, a former Iraqi soldier. He described the frightening world of Iraqi society – even more chaotic since the death of Sadaam Hussein! – with open warfare in the streets and no semblance of civilized behavior.
Life in the Western World is in stark contrast with that dark world, but here also we are seeing disquieting trends. For example, an assassination attempt was made recently upon a group of congressmen practicing for a charity baseball game. This attack underscores the fragile nature of the entire world in this era. As Chazal say,
“Pray for the welfare of the government, because if people did not fear it, a person would swallow his fellow alive.” (Pirkei Avos 2:2)
We are clearly close to the days of Moshiach. World order, such as it is, is in jeopardy. Those who rely upon the surrounding cultures will find that the pillars upon which they lean are crumbling. The scenario is like that described by the novi:
“Shimshon grasped the two central pillars upon which the building rested and he leaned on them… and the building collapsed on the governors and on all the people inside it…..” (Shoftim 16:29ff*)
Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein zt”l said,
“I am convinced that our generation is living in the days which Chazal call Ikvesa d’Mesicha.” (Legacy of the Mashgiach, page 270)
We read this week about the classic chok, the parah aduma. What does the red cow tell us about the current world situation? Without trying to unravel its mysteries, which were beyond the wisdom even of Shlomo Hamelech, I would like to make a few observations, which seem to me not only clear from the details of the mitzvah, but also remarkably relevant to contemporary events.
The para aduma is a perfectly red cow which has never had an “ol” placed upon it, meaning that it has never been subject to discipline imposed from outside. The cow is shechted and burned, and its ashes are mixed with pure spring water. Sprinkling this mixture upon a person removes the tumah associated with death, and is the prerequisite to our ability to return to the most holy places and to fulfill all the mitzvos. In the words of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt”l,
“If we had no means of restoring … the tahara of our persons, it would be impossible for us to observe the Torah.” (Parshas Chukas)
What does this have to do with the current world situation?
We are trying to prepare for the Bais Hamikdosh. We are trying to shed the pollution of our immersion in the culture of the nations among whom we have lived for thousands of years, just as our ancestors had to shed the impurity of Mitzraim before they ascended to Har Sinai. The culture of the surrounding nations is bounded by the world of gashmius. Despite lip service to spiritual values, there is no understanding of ruchnius. “In G-d we trust” is written on the dollar bill, which really highlights what the surrounding culture worships! The culture of Am Yisroel, on the other hand, is attached to Hashem. These opposing ideals are incompatible with each other.
But Am Yisroel has become terribly sickened by our exposure to their culture. This became evident at the beginning of our history. Even in the Midbar we were affected by the negative influence of the erev rav, who brought the tumah of Mitzraim into our midst.
“For forty years I was angry with the generation. Then I said, ‘An errant hearted people are they and they do not know My ways….’” (Tehillim 95)
How do we cure ourselves? How do we remove the tumah which threatens to destroy our very essence, G-d forbid? The mitzvah of parah aduma has been given to us perform this very task.
This powerful mitzvah is very stark in its implications, but it teaches us what we have to learn. The red cow which has never borne an “ol” represents our materialistic desires, our taivas. Once a great Rosh Yeshiva said to me, “I never had a steak in my life!” This is not what we are used to hearing, but it represents the world of Torah. The parah aduma is one big steak! It represents all bodily desires. These taivas are what Western Civilization lives for!
The parah aduma is coming to tell us that this is literally death! The Torah does not want us to stop eating. No! But the Torah wants us to stop desiring food as if eating was the purpose of life, and this goes for all material desires. So we are to shecht and burn this red cow, because that is what the Torah says is the path to ridding ourselves of the impurities of the surrounding culture. For these desires, “the only remedy is shechita. It requires total subordination through a sharp and decisive act of human free will.” (Hirsch ibid)
Don’t forget, the beginning of Am Yisroel’s freedom from slavery occurred when Yosef Hatzaddik, alone in Mitzraim, was able to overcome the enticements of Potiphar’s wife. The first Moshiach comes from Yosef, and this is the eternal beginning of our redemption!
It is vital for us to remember that we are going to survive the coming tests only if we follow the example of our holy ancestors who understood how to survive the lure of Mitzraim. We have to learn to subordinate the taivas which are destroying the surrounding culture, and to pour upon ourselves the living waters of the Torah, just as the ashes of the parah adumah were submerged in “mayim chaim.”
May we all be zoche to be sprinkled with the ashes of the parah adumah and go up to Har Habayis in purity to serve Hashem in His eternal Temple soon in our days!
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Roy Neuberger, author and public speaker, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Copyright 2017 by Roy S. Neuberger
*ff = The abbreviation ff. is used in citation to refer to a section for which no final page number can usefully be given. When used, ff. has no space between it and the preceding number and is followed by a full stop.