Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky

This week we will read from two Torah scrolls. The first is the portion of the week, Shemini, which describes the eighth day of the ceremony to ordain the Kohanim (the priests) and to consecrate the Mishkan (the Tabernacle).

The second reading comes from the Book of Numbers and details the laws of the red heifer, the most enigmatic mitzvah in the entire Torah. What do these two readings have in common?

The weekly Torah parshah contains the tragic story of the deaths of Aaron’s two sons, Nadav and Avihu:

“The sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took his fire pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before God an alien fire that He had not commanded them to bring.” Immediately, “a fire came forth from before God and consumed them, and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:1-2).

What was their sin? They brought an “alien fire” before God. The problem is that we don’t really know what that alien fire was. For thousands of years, the rabbis have been trying to understand what their infraction was and why they deserved to die. Despite their efforts, to this day we cannot say with certainty why they died.

The second Torah reading about the Parah Adumah, the red heifer, is one of four special readings that are chanted in the weeks leading up to Passover. The passage of the red heifer describes a purification rite which would purify those who were impure enabling them to partake in the Paschal sacrifice (someone who was impure was forbidden to participate in this sacred service).

“Get a red cow without blemish… And it must never have worn a yoke. Give that cow to Eleazar, and he will take it outside the camp and kill it there… Then the whole cow must be burned in front of him; the skin, the meat, the blood, and the intestines must all be burned. Then the priest must take a cedar stick, a hyssop branch, and some red string. He must throw these things into the fire where the cow is burning. Then the priest must wash himself and his clothes with water. Then he must come back into the camp. He will be unclean until evening (Numbers 19).

It’s not hard to see how this is the most inexplicable mitzvah in the Torah. Why a red cow without blemish? Why burn the remains of the cow with cedar, hyssop and red string? And most puzzling, how could this rite purify the person who was impure while at the same time make the officiating priest impure until the evening?

Even Maimonides, arguably the most brilliant of rabbis, admits that the law of the red heifer was beyond his understanding. So if he couldn’t make sense of this mitzvah, how could we possibly understand it?

I believe that the common thread between these two passages, the deaths of Nadav and Avihu and the rite of the red heifer, is that sometimes, no matter how hard we try, we are not going to be able to comprehend every mystery in life. While we grope for meaning in life, including the suffering of others (or ourselves), we don’t always have satisfactory answers. Similarly, we may examine a troubling mitzvah like the Parah Adumah and try to find a reasonable rationale, but we are not always going to succeed.

This does not mean, however, that we shouldn’t endeavor to solve the mysteries of the world – whether we find them in the Torah or encounter them in our personal lives. We should always strive to find answers to our most pressing questions. But one can also embrace humility by knowing that no matter how hard we try, we may not always find the answers that we seek.

When I was a young boy in Yeshiva, I remember that my teachers were much more impressed with good questions than they were with good answers. Maybe that is because good questions inspire us to think, whereas good answers are not always available. As I matured, I recognized that sometimes we can learn more from the questions than we can from the answers!

Shabbat Shalom. JN

Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky is a retired Navy chaplain, freelance rabbi and former president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Phoenix.