Parashat Ki Tissa, Shabbat Parah: Riddled with paradox

Parashat Ki Tissa, Shabbat Parah: Riddled with paradox

This Shabbat we read Ki Tissa, plus an additional selection for Shabbat Parah. These readings are riddled with paradox.

Moses, who counsels God regarding anger management, cannot seem to manage his own. Then God, who meets with Moses face to face, later tells him no human can see His face and live. Finally, the passage describing the ritual of the parah adumah, the red heifer, tells us that it purifies the defiled and defiles the pure.

Paradoxes in the fields of logic, mathematics, philosophy, economics and physics can make one’s head spin. So, how can we reconcile these seeming contradictions in Torah without making our heads spin?

God becomes enraged that the people have worshipped the golden calf. He tells Moses that He will destroy them. Moses reminds God that He brought them out of Egypt with great power, and that, if He annihilates them, the Egyptians will say that He brought them out of Egypt with evil intent. He implores God to remember Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and His promise to them. Thus, in a sense, Moses’ reasoned appeal results in God managing His anger.

Not so Moses himself. When he descends the mountain and sees what has happened with his own eyes he becomes infuriated. He smashes the tablets, burns the golden calf, confronts his brother, Aaron, and bids the Levites to slay some 3,000 who had engaged in the idolatrous worship.

Atop the mountain, Moses could not see what God had seen. He could only hear God’s report and endeavor to assuage His wrath. But, when he saw it himself, firsthand, he became enraged. Did he lose control, or did he manage his anger? Israel was out of control. Moreover, Israel had sinned egregiously. How could he regain control of the people and lead once more? Was he unconsciously acting as God’s agent in punishing Israel, or was he reacting personally to the outrage he witnessed? Moses’ plea to God on the people’s behalf contrasted with his own actions presents the first paradox.

Following the episode of the golden calf, the Torah tells us that when Moses would meet with God in the ohel moed, the tent of meeting, He spoke to Moses face to face, as one person would speak to another. Are we to take this literally? In light of a subsequent conversation, I think not. For, when Moses begs to behold God, the Holy One tells him that he cannot see His face, for no human can see His face and live. But He will make all His goodness pass before him. In context, “face to face” is an idiom which means “directly,” and not through a medium, or in a dream or vision. Paradox resolved.

The final paradox is found in the additional reading for Shabbat Parah. It’s the Shabbat after Purim, and our thoughts begin to focus on Pesach. Perhaps this selection from Chukat about the ritual of the parah adumah was chosen to remind us that we have a month to turn from the ridiculous to the sublime. Our attention is directed to the spiritual and ritual preparations for Pesach, cleaning the chametz from our homes and our hearts.

Our ancestors believed that one was defiled by coming into contact with a corpse. The ritual of the red heifer purified the person. But, the ashes which purified the defiled, in turn, defiled the priest who performed the ritual. The rabbis sought in vain to understand how this could be, but it defied rational explanation. According to a Midrash, R. Yochanan ben Zakkai once offered a satisfactory explanation to an enquiring Gentile. But his students, still puzzled, remarked that the answer may have satisfied that person, but asked what R. Yochanan had to say to them. He replied that, in truth, contact with the dead does not defile, nor do the ashes purify. But, this is what God has commanded, and we must observe it.

Perhaps we read this passage on the Shabbat after Purim in anticipation of Pesach to remind us of our mortality, our vulnerability, and the ultimate mysteries: life and death, and the infinite possibilities of renewal and redemption.