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statuTe of liberty

Written by Rabbi Daniel Leeman

We have been taught that the commandment of the Red Heffer, whose ashes are used as part of the purification process, provides atonement for the sin of the golden calf. A parable is given of a maidservant who tidies up the mess that her son makes in the kings palace. [1] But surely it would have sufficed to provide a parable of a mother tidying up after her son: why does she have to also be a maidservant, and why specifically in the palace of the king?

Furthermore, the commandment of the Red Heffer is referred to as the quintessential statute or decree in the Torah [2], or in other words it has no understandable reasoning. But, the commentaries ask, in light of the above parable of a mother cleaning up after her son, surely we now at least partially understand the commandment?

In Prague a new city mayor was elected, mainly through Jewish votes, as at the time the Jews did not know that he was secretly an anti-Semite. The Jewish community tendered a dance and banquet to the newly-elected official, one of the guests being the celebrated ‘Noda b’Yehuda’, R’ Yechezkel Lando.

The mayor thought he saw an opportunity to say something awkward to Rabbi Lando, and remarked to him, “How fond you Jews are of dancing! It seems to be hereditary, for your ancestors not only made the golden calf in the wilderness, but they also danced before it.”
Recognising the true nature of the new mayor, the Rabbi answered dryly: “Yes, your honour; whenever the Jews select an ox or a calf for a leader, they are indeed fond of dancing.”

Admitting our errors is an integral part of the repentance program.

The sin of the golden calf resulted from the Children of Israel following their own logic, and so the Red Heffer comes to atone it because it involves following a commandment that is beyond, and even defies our logic. Therefore by performing the commandment of the Red Heffer we are acknowledging our error of the sin of the golden calf.

Therefore the Red Heffer is like the maidservant who tidies up the king’s palace after her son makes a mess. The ‘mess’ of the sin of the golden calf was ‘in the king’s palace’ because the Jewish people sinned by seeking an intermediary to serve G-d at Sinai – the King’s palace. But the commandment of the Red Heffer involved subjugating oneself to G-d’s command, like a maidservant who follows her master’s wishes unconditionally.

And so the Red Heffer atones and it is also a statute, because it atones for the very reason that it is a statute. In turn, tit-for-tat, like all successful repentance, past sins are transformed into merits [3] – defying logic and even the laws of nature!

Perhaps this is also why the Red Heffer is the quintessential example of a statute: it is not only intrinsically a statute, but it also helps to generate repentance, which is also a type of ‘statute’!

…Now that really is a reason to dance!

Have a rejoicing Shabbos,


Additional sources:
[1] Rashi, Bamidbar 19
[2] Bamidbar 19:2
[3] See Yuma 86b

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