Why is the Cow Red?
Balancing Curiosity with Acceptance
by Miri Korbman
The following dialogue likely sounds familiar to most of us. “Sweetie, please go wash your hands.” “Why, Mommy?” “Because it’s dinnertime!” “But why is now dinnertime?” “Because it’s six pm and that’s when people eat dinner!” “But why do people eat dinner at 6pm? Why did Hashem make it that our tummies get hungry so many times during the day? Why do we get hungry? Why do we have tummies??”
Human beings crave explanation, knowledge, and understanding. Woe unto the unfortunate adult who gets drawn into a “but why?!” dialogue like the above with an innocent and well-meaning child. From when we can first verbalize our thoughts, we begin asking, “why?” because we are attempting to make sense of the world around us, to understand where we have landed ourselves and what we need to do to navigate the world safely and happily. As we develop, we must embrace the sometimes-difficult truth that not everything we encounter always comes with a satisfying explanation. We may never understand why certain things happen the way they do, nor why certain individuals act, think, feel, speak, or treat others the way they do. As we grow and mature, we learn that sometimes our “but why?” does not have an answer, despite our valid desire to know and understand the world and how everything in it works. Often, it is when we are unable to accept this, when we dig our heels in and practically tantrum over the “but why?!” that we find ourselves faced with distress, mistrust, and other difficult feelings and experiences.
Just as every child will question and want explanations for why they must follow an adult’s instructions or for why the sky is blue, so the Jewish people as a nation must question, and presumably had many questions for God and for Moshe after the exodus from Egypt and after Matan Torah. In fact, we know that Yisro advised Moshe to set up the system of seventy elders in order to help him to field the numerous questions the Jewish people had after receiving the Torah. Furthermore, our entire Talmud is filled with questions and answers, with discussion and debate and analysis, in order to understand the Torah and Mitzvos to live a Jewish lifestyle.
As the Jews wandered in the desert and began to develop as a nation, however, they too had to accept the difficult reality that being a true Eved Hashem often means grappling with a lack of understanding and explanation.
The Parsha begins with the words “Zos Chukas HaTorah,” this is the statute of the Torah (19:1), an introductory statement regarding the Mitzvah of Parah Adumah, sanctification through the red heifer. Rav Chaim Shmulevitz notes in his sefer Sichos Mussar that it is strange that of all the Mitzvos in the Torah, this one in particular is thus labeled with such importance as “the statute” of the Torah. The Sichos Mussar then quotes the Ohr HaChaim, who explains that the reason Parah Aduma is referred to as the universal statute of Torah is because it is the quintessential Chok, a Mitzvah for which there is no rational explanation. The Ohr HaChaim elaborates that doing a Mitzvah when you have no real understanding of why you are doing so other than because God commanded it is equal to fulfilling all of the Mitzvos, because it shows that such a person has true faith and desire to do Hashem’s will, even without a rational, reasonable, sensible explanation.
At this point in the Jewish people’s journey, literally and figuratively, as a nation, it was critical for us to learn that Avodas Hashem at its core is not about understanding why we are doing the Mitzvos. Even the Sefer HaChinuch, who delineates a counting of the 613 Mitzvos along with their “Shorashim,” provides us not with explanations, unless God Himself gave one, but rather with insight into what this Mitzvah can teach us, or the roots of it in Torah sources. For this reason, they were presented now with the Mitzvah most emblematic of this concept, the Parah Aduma.
As human beings, we are thankfully blessed with intellect, sharp intelligence, curiosity, and a thirst for knowledge. This is incredibly important, and these traits are blessings from God, for they allow us to think, grow, learn, connect, and achieve. At the same time, however, our lofty stature as thinking beings can lead to desire for explanations, and even to demanding them of others and of God, which can threaten our Avodas Hashem. While it is important, even crucial, to question, and we should indeed encourage our children and students to ask questions, it is also imperative for them and for us to learn to accept non-answers, the explanation that there is no explanation. As a nation, Bnei Yisrael needed to learn this through the Mitzvah of the Parah Aduma, to realize, after weeks and months (possibly years) of learning from and questioning Moshe and the Zekainim, that the highest level of Avodas Hashem is to perform the Mitzvos out of desire to do Hashem’s will, rather than because we understand the reasons for them.
In my first semester of graduate school, a professor asked me how I could be “so scientific” and simultaneously “so religious.” She wondered how I could be a thinking, questioning, curious intellectual, and also be so steadfast in my faith. I credited my teachers, my parents, and my God-given spirituality, my own soul desire for spiritual connection, and explained that the two are not mutually exclusive, and perhaps this is why. It is not easy to do things for which we do not have a rationale; sometimes this means deriving meaning from it, as the Sefer HaChinuch guides us through with each Mitzvah, even if we do not have a clear explanation. This is yet another Torah dialectic - we must question, learn, and be curious, while at the same time accepting that we do what we do because it is God’s will, even when we don’t understand.
This week, think of an area in your life, or in your Avodas Hashem, where you are fiercely digging in your heels, demanding an explanation, shaking your head and saying, “this doesn’t make sense,” something that has been difficult for you to do, or accept, because you are questioning, and do not understand. Let us take a lesson from the Parah Aduma, and work to try to accept that we do not always understand, and, hopefully, this acceptance can lead us to further spiritual connection.