In our Parsha we find a detailed account of the preparation of the Parah Adumah, the red heifer. Why it worked and how it worked, we don't know, and Rashi reminds us that it is a Chok, a statute that we follow even without understanding it. He warns us that even contemplating the topic is forbidden.
Nevertheless, we do know what happened. It was m'taher t'mayim, and m'tamei tahorim. It purified the impure and defiled the pure.
Those who were Tamei (ritually impure) due to contact with the dead were purified by the Parah Adumah. Yet the Cohanim who handled it who had to be Tahor (ritually pure) to begin with, became Tamei (ritually impure) in the process. It defies logic, but this is the nature of a Chok!
Nevertheless, we know that the Torah is eternal. The Baal ShemTov taught therefore that everything in the Torah has a lesson for us in Avodas Hashem (divine service). Chassidic literature is replete with profound lessons in Avodas Hashem drawn from the concept of m'taher t'mayim, and m'tamei tahorim.
The Baal ShemTov gave this explanation when asked about the lesson of the Parah Adumah in the realm of Avodas Hashem.
It comes to teach us about arrogance. Sometimes a person is very far from Hashem and is hardly involved in Torah and Mitzvos. When he turns around and wants to come close to Hashem, he may begin with non-altruistic motives. He may want to assure himself a place in the World to Come or to be accepted by certain people or even to show others how pious he really is. As he progresses in the process of Teshuva (return), he feels that he has accomplished much and is satisfied with his efforts.
Nevertheless, explained the Baal ShemTov, we know that without Hashem on our side, we cannot accomplish anything at all. But for this Ba'al Teshuva, a bit of arrogance is fine, and even if he does Teshuva for the wrong reasons, eventually he will come to serve Hashem for the right reasons. We see here m'taher t'mayim. His arrogance is actually serving to effect his Teshuva. Nevertheless, once he has reached a certain level he must serve Hashem with humility. Arrogance then would be m'tamei tahorim.
On the other hand there are Tzaddikim who are already serving Hashem fully and wholeheartedly with perfect intention. For them, arrogance spoils the Avodah, that is the explanation of m'tamei tahorim.
Even the Tzaddikim though, sometimes need arrogance. When a Tzaddik moves from one level to another in Avodas Hashem, sometimes he needs to take a leap in order to reach a higher level. It is asked in the Talmud (Sandhedrin 37a), "Why was Man created alone? In order that he should say that the World was created for me!" This is the bit of arrogance required by a Tzaddik to dare to leap up to a new level of Avodas Hashem. This is how arrogance is m'taher t'mayim. The arrogance can propel the Tzaddik to a previously unattainable level. The Tzaddik on the lower level is referred to as Tamei as compared to the new level which is called Tahor.
Once he reaches the new level, his service must be performed with utter humility as before. That is the meaning of m'tamei tahorim.
The Sefer, Toldos Yaacov Yosef, written by R' Yaacov Yosef of Polnoye, one of the earliest and most closely connected students of the Baal ShemTov, brings a number of explanations of m'taher t'mayim, and m'tamei tahorim.
The "Toldos" brings a Midrash from Bamidbar Rabbah (19:1). The Midrash, in discussing the concept of m'taher t'mayim, and m'tamei tahorim, quotes the beginning of Parsha Chukas (19:2), "This is the statute of the Torah . . .". The Midrash, in order to explain this statute of the Torah, brings a verse from Job 14:4. "Who will bring forth pure from impure if not the Only One."
The Midrash continues by praising Hashem who is m'taher t'mayim. He brought forth Avraham Avinu from Terach the idolater. He brought forth the King Chizkiyahu, the almost Messiah from the idolatrous King Achav. Mordechai the Tzaddik, the Purim Hero came from the informer Shimi ben Gerah. The Holy Jewish people were born from the rest of the nations of the world, and He brought forth the World to Come as the destination and purpose of the present physical world. Is it any wonder that the Red Heifer can m'taher t'mayim, and m'tamei tahorim.
The "Toldos" however, ignores the line of thought in the Midrash and delivers his own novel idea based on the verse from Job.
A Jew endeavors every day to advance and improve his Avodas Hashem. On a given day he may choose to take upon himself a new service or custom, or to rededicate his efforts in the performance of a certain mitzvah. The goal, to create a closer connection with Hashem.
This process of taking on something extra, or rededicating one's energy in Avodas Hashem is called Chassidus (piety). It demonstrates his genuine desire to serve Hashem.
Now, he has reached a new plateau. Tomorrow, his divine service begins from this plateau that was attained yesterday. The new custom or service becomes Avdus (obligation). One begins today's service from where yesterday's left off.
This, explains the "Toldos", is the lesson learned from the verse in Job. "Who will bring forth pure from impure. . .", this is the one who each day adds to his divine service by making yesterday's Chassidus today's Avdus. If he doesn't grow from day to day, he is in essence, bringing forth impure from pure.
In Hebrew, ". . .if not the Only One", is "lo echad". The "Toldos" explains that the verse is asking, "Who will bring forth pure from impure", who will be constantly growing and proceeding in his Avodas Hashem, treating yesterday's Chassidus as today's Avdus? The answer is, "Lo Echad", not one. The person who is not content to remain in one fixed place, rather is constantly changing and growing in his Avodas Hashem, he is the one who is bringing forth Pure from Impure.
From the Parah Adumah we therefore learn to be m'taher t'mayim, to grow and add on day by day in Avodas Hashem. To rest on the laurels of yesterday's spiritual achievements would be the act of m'tamei tahorim.
May we all continue to grow in the Path of Avodas Hashem.
Short Biography: R' Yaacov Yosef of Polnoye (1705-1784), was one of the first and most dedicated of the disciples of the founder of Chassidus, the Holy Baal Shem Tov. He was already an accomplished scholar when he attached himself to the Baal Shem Tov, and his becoming a disciple engendered much controversy, and he was even booted out of the city of Sharograd where he had been the Rabbi for a number of years.
His book Toldos Yaacov Yosef (1780) was the first Chassidic work ever published. In it repeats the phrase, "I have heard from my teacher", 249 times. He is one of our foremost sources for teachings from the Baal Shem Tov.
The years 589-1038 CE were the height of the Dark Ages in Europe. For the Jewish people they were the Era of the Geonim, the period immediately following the closing of the Babylonian Talmud. We know of almost 100 Geonim by name. The reign of a Gaon was like the reign of a King. He was the epitome of wisdom and understanding and kindness. In an era of greatness, R' Saadya Gaon of Sura (882-842 CE), stood above all the rest.
Once, R' Saadya Gaon travelled to a distant town on a communal matter. He arrived late at night, made his way to the local Jewish inn and requested lodging for a few nights. The innkeeper, not recognizing his guest, tossed a key at him and pointed to a room at the end of the corridor.
The next morning, as the innkeeper made his way through the local shuk (marketplace), he noticed that all the stores of the Jewish merchants were closed. He didn't understand, he knew there wasn't a holiday today. He made his way to the Beit Knesset to find the entire community gathered to hear the famed R' Saadya Gaon deliver a lecture. When the innkeeper saw that the distinguished sage was none other than his guest of the previous night, he became disconsolate. "How could I have treated him so poorly", he berated himself over and over.
At the end of the lecture, the innkeeper raced to the podium from were R' Saadya was speaking, threw himself on the floor at his feet and began to wail, begging for forgiveness. "If I had only known who you were", he sobbed repentfully, "I would have served you differently."
Some years later, a disciple of R' Saadya Gaon discovered his Rebbe alone in his room weeping, lamenting and pounding his chest with his fists. The disciple didn't reveal his presence, but looked on in wonderment and confusion.
A short time later, he summoned the courage to ask R' Saadya for an explanation of his unusual behavior.
"I am trying to do Teshuva", admitted R' Saadya. "Surely", protested the disciple, "the Gaon is not in need of such Teshuva. The Gaon is engaged without interruption the entire day and night in Torah and Mitzvot. How could it be that such Teshuva is required?" R' Saadya Gaon sighed, smiled slowly and related the story of the innkeeper that had occurred years before.
"You see", R' Saadya haltingly revealed, "when I reflect on my divine service, and what I have learned each day, I realize that yesterday I barely knew Hashem." "If I had only known yesterday what I know now, how magnificent is the Master of the World, how great His kindness, and how much are we required to praise Him and express our gratitude, I would surely have served Him differently!"
Return to the Nishmas Chayim Parsha and Holiday Archive