This week’s parsha begins with the halachos of a para aduma. The Torah details what one must do if he becomes tamei from a corpse. This mitzvah is known as the quintessential chok – mitzvah that we do without knowing its reason. It received this title when Shlomo Hamelech, who understood the reasons for all the mitzvos, said that he could not understand this mitzvah.
The Midrash in this week’s parsha explains that the reason why the para aduma is a female animal while most other korbanos are male is explained in the following mashal: there was a son of a maidservant who made a mess in the king’s palace. The king ordered that the mother should come to clean her son’s mess. So said Hashem, let the mother cow come and clean up the mess that the eigel – calf – made. Rashi on the pesukim elaborates how each step in the process of a para aduma atones for different aspects of the sin of the eigel hazahav – the golden calf. (The yotzros of Parshas Para elaborates further on the connection.)
Now these two aspects seem to contradict each other. On the one hand we are told that para aduma is the mitzvah that we cannot fathom its purpose, yet ironically, we are given more background to the reason for this mitzvah than likely any other! Why is this mitzvah known to be so complex, when it seems to have a direct correspondence to the sin of the eigel?
The Beis Haleivi, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt”l (1820-1892), suggests that we need to first properly understand what the sin of the eigel was. He asks how was it that a nation who just experienced the ten makkos and then the exodus from Metzrayim followed by krias yam suf and culminating with hearing the Aseres Hadibros could fall so quickly into such a terrible sin?
He says that they were actually trying to become closer to Hashem. They believed that Moshe, their intermediary connecting them to Hashem, was not going to return, and they sought a replacement. The essential fault that they made was that they were not commanded to find a replacement to represent them. If Moshe was indeed not going to return it was not incumbent on them to find his replacement, because Hashem did not command them to.
Similarly, the Beis Haleivi writes, one would not have been allowed to build a home for Hashem’s Shechina prior to the commandment to build a mishkan – even if he was able to figure out exactly how Hashem would want such a place to look like.
Although all the mitzvos do accomplish certain tikunim and shleimus, these lofty accomplishments are only achieved if Hashem commands us to do them. That was essentially the sin of the eigel. Parenthetically that is also how avoda zara itself began. The Rambam in the beginning of hilchos Avoda Zara writes that when Hashem created the world, Adam Harishon and his children and descendants knew Hashem created the world. But in the days of Enosh they decided that they could not worship Hashem directly for He was too great. Instead, they would serve his servants, such as the sun, the moon, the earth etcetera. Once we add ways to serve Hashem, ways which we are not commanded to do so, it can result in avoda zara!
Returning to the question at hand, the fact that the mitzvah of para aduma atones for the sin of the eigel is not why we do the mitzvah of para aduma. We perform the mitzvah of para aduma because we were so commanded. The reason why it atones for the sin of the eigel is because it is a chok – a mitzvah that we do without understanding its reason. That is the atonement. Performing a mitzvah that we truly cannot understand and solely do so because Hashem commanded us is the atonement for the sin of the eigel where we tried to act on our own without being commanded.