Parashat Chukat begins with the mitzva of para aduma – the “red heifer” that was slaughtered and then burned, after which its ashes were mixed with special water. This water was the “mei chatat” – the waters used to purify people and objects that became tamei (impure) through contact with a human corpse. The Torah specifies that the cow used for this ritual must be completely red, as well as “temima” – unblemished, without any “mum” – physical defect.
The Ben Ish Chai, in Aderet Eliyahu, suggested viewing the para aduma as a symbol of repentance, the method of “purification” from the defilement of sin. Just as the para aduma must be “temima” – whole and perfect, likewise, one’s repentance must be “whole,” as we pray in the Amida each weekday, “hachazireinu bi-tshuva sheleima lefanekha” – “bring us back before You in complete repentance.” Our repentance must be “complete,” an endeavor to correct the entirety of our conduct and beings.
Similarly, the Ben Ish Chai writes, the para aduma must be an animal “asher ein bah mum” – without a physical defect, symbolizing the need to ensure that no “defects” tarnish our efforts to improve. The Ben Ish Chai observes that on some occasions, a person’s quest to improve in one area results in “blemishes” in other areas. As an example, he points to the situation of a person who takes it upon himself to observe a series of fasts as part of his process of teshuva, but the discomfort of fasting makes him impatient and irritable, causing him to become angry at his family members. Such repentance, the Ben Ish Chai writes, is “blemished.” It might be sincere and well-intentioned, but if it accompanied by sinful “side effects,” then it is not legitimate.
Finally, the Torah requires that the cow used as the para aduma must have never been harnessed to a yoke – “asher lo aleha ol.” The symbolic meaning of this requirement, the Ben Ish Chai explains, is that we must not complain about, or be deterred by, the challenges and difficulty of teshuva. We should embrace repentance as a precious opportunity for change, rather than viewing it as a heavy “yoke” upon our shoulders. We should undertake measures of repentance happily and enthusiastically, eager to make a fresh start, without resenting the “burden” of teshuva, recognizing that repentance is an invaluable gift we have been granted, that we are privileged to be able to make ourselves better and continually grow.