Parashat Chukat begins by introducing the mitzva of para aduma – the red heifer which was burned into ash, which was then mixed with water to form the mei chatat, the special purifying waters. These waters are needed to restore a person or article’s status of impurity after coming in contact with a human corpse. The great irony of the mei chatat, as already noted by Chazal, is that while it had the effect of bringing purity to those who had become impure, it brought impurity to those who were pure. Towards the end of this section in Parashat Chukat, the Torah establishes that the one who sprinkles the mei chatat to purify somebody, or who simply touches the mei chatat, becomes impure and requires immersion (19:21).
One the approaches that have been taken to explain this anomaly is that the ashes of the red heifer symbolize death. The red heifer had to be an adult cow, perfectly red, and entirely free of physical defects. It was a perfect creature, that was burned and reduced to ash. It is thus symbolic of the incomprehensible tragedy of death – a strong, accomplished, vital and impressive human being becomes reduced to nothingness. The ashes of the para aduma have two opposite effects – they can bring both purity and impurity – to instruct that an encounter with death, and contemplating death, can have two opposite effects on a person. One possibility is that it can cause “impurity”; it can lead a person to depression and cynicism, to question the value of life insofar as it necessarily results in death, and to view himself as nothing more than a heap of ashes even during his years of vitality and potential achievement. This “impurity” can devastatingly stifle a person and hold him back from pursuing meaningful goals and from productivity. On the other hand, encountering or contemplating death can bring “purity”; it can infuse a person with a mature sense of responsibility and mission. Reminding ourselves of our mortality, of our limited time and opportunities, can spur us to work harder and to live more conscientiously. As Rabbi Eliezer (Shabbat 153a) famously admonished, we must repent on our final day of life – and since we do not know when that will be, we must repent each day. Being aware of the prospect of the death can motivate us to accomplish more and to treat each day as though it were it last, while ignoring our mortality can lead to complacency and indifference.
The message of the para aduma, then, which is subtly conveyed to the individual who has encountered death, is that this encounter can serve as either a source of “purity” or “impurity,” as an impetus for growth and achievement, or as a cause of depression and despair. And it is up to the individual to decide which direction to follow. (See Rav Reuven Bulka’s “Parah Adumah – Pardoxical But True,” where he explains along similar lines.)
To some extent, this is true of all forms of adversity. Difficulties and hardship can cause us despair, but can also spur growth and maturation. They can cause us to view the world with harsh negativity, or inspire us to work towards appreciating our blessings and utilizing them to the very best of our ability. The paradox of the para aduma thus perhaps challenges us to take all of life’s difficult situations and turn them into a source of ‘purity,” as opportunities for growth and for renewing our commitment to live at the highest standards we can.