Many sources in Chazal speak of the para aduma – the red heifer whose ashes were used for purification – as the quintessential “chok,” or statute whose rationale eludes human comprehension. One of the aspects of the para aduma that is commonly viewed as especially mysterious is the fact that the heifer’s ashes are used for purification, but those involved in its preparation or who handle it become impure. In the words of the Rambam (Hilkhot Para Aduma 5:1), “All who are involved in the cow from the beginning until the end – their clothes are impure” – referring to the fact that both the individuals involved in making and using the ashes, and their clothing, require immersion to regain their status of purity. Although the ashes are sprinkled on people and objects that have been defiled (through contact with a human corpse) to purify them, those who prepare and sprinkle the ashes become defiled.
One approach taken to explain this anomaly appears in Rabbi Natan of Breslav’s Likutei Halakhot (Hashkamat Ha-boker, 1). Rabbi Natan viewed the para aduma as a symbol of the spark of goodness that exists within a person’s being regardless of whatever mistakes he has made and whatever misdeeds he has committed. The Torah requires that the cow used for the para aduma be perfectly unblemished, without ever having been used for any labor that could have caused some harm to its body or compromised its physical strength. The para aduma thus represents that element of perfection within the human soul which can never be corrupted, what Rabbi Natan calls the “nekuda tova” – “point of goodness” that forever exists within us even when we fail and sin.
Rabbi Natan explains that the awareness of this “nekuda tova” can be both beneficial and detrimental. When we find ourselves in a state of “impurity,” in times of failure and shame, the recognition of our “nekuda tova,” that we still possess an untarnished element of purity, is indispensable for spiritual recovery. We cannot even begin the process of return without recognizing our “nekuda tova,” that we still have the potential for sanctity and purity despite our grave mistakes. In this sense, Rabbi Natan writes, the para aduma “purifies the impure”; it facilitates our process of purification after we have fallen into a state of impurity. On the other hand, however, this awareness can potentially ruin us when we experience a state of “purity.” Under normal conditions, when we do not feel “impure,” focusing on our “nekuda tova” can lead to complacency or hubris. Contemplating our sacred spark that can never be extinguished could cause us to become overconfident and too comfortable with ourselves, which could then easily result in laxity in our religious commitment. And so in this sense, the para aduma “defiles the pure,” as our recognition of our innate goodness can cause our “defilement” by making us self-righteous and smug.
Essentially, Rabbi Natan here alerts us to both the vital necessary and grave danger of self-esteem and self-confidence. On the one hand, such feelings are vital for growth and progress; we will never begin to try to improve if we do not believe in our capacity to improve, that we are capable of being better than our current condition. But on the other hand, such feelings can have the precise opposite effect, leading us to a sense of comfort with our current selves, without sensing any need to work to become greater. We are thus urged to fully acknowledge and trust in our “nekuda tova,” in our innate goodness and spark of sanctity, a recognition that should lead us not to complacency, but rather to an ambitious, lifelong effort to reach higher and constantly strive to become better.