Our parasha continues the narrative from פרשת קרח, with a 38-year gap:
But in between we have פרק יח, which is the laws of מתנת כהונה. That fits the narrative, since it is a response to the rebellion of Korach. But then we have פרק יט:
What is that doing here? It’s striking that everyone agrees that it’s not part of the narrative; the law of פרה אדמה was given well before this. Even Sforno, who likes the idea that new laws were given during the 40 years in the desert, says that this was from earlier:
And Rashi says it was even earlier than that, from right after they left Egypt:
So why re-learn this law now?
Rashi cites the gemara, that פרה אדומה is an introduction to the death of Miriam that follows:
But that seems almost a Christian idea: the death of the righteous brings atonement? How does that work?
Rav Schwab explains that the כפרה is in our attitudes toward both פרה אדומה and מיתתן של צדיקים. Both are חוקים in the sense of divine decrees that are beyond our understanding.
Ramban (and many others) says the connection is to the laws of מתנת כהונה in the previous chapter:
But this doesn’t really fit; פרה אדמה is not a gift to the Kohen. Why this law of all the laws of sacrifices?
Chizkuni connects it to the previous narrative. We need to learn the laws of פרה אדמה because there are so many dead people lying around:
But it’s not just those who died in the rebellion of Korach. The paragraph of פרה אדמה summarizes the 38 years when the only thing בני ישראל did was die. They traveled through the Negev—probably spent a סופשבוע at מצפה רמון and on the beach in Eilat—but their job was to be dead, to let the next generation take over.
There’s nothing more overwhelming, more depressing, than the realization of one’s own mortality. This is the argument of קהלת:
And Rav Hirsch makes this nihilism the central point of his understanding of the concept of טומאה:
טומאה is the realization that nothing matters. It all ends in emptiness. It’s the philosophy of nihilism.
So how can one overcome the טומאה inherent in a mortal life? Rav Hirsch explains the symbolism of the פרה אדמה in great detail, how each aspect is meant to teach that the חוק, the incomprehensibility, of death, can be accepted.
We learn the laws of פרה אדמה now, at this point in the narrative, because it is what allowed בני ישראל to continue on in the face of their otherwise pointless existence. I want to mention one detail from Rashi:
The mother is the כפרה for the child. The task of the generation that left Egypt wasn’t simply to die; it was to create the next generation that would enter the land. To get past the nihilism of death, we need some sense of higher purpose. Knowing that our children will go on gives us that purpose.