For Parshat Para: Purifying passion

It is during this time, from Purim to Pesach, that Hashem comes down to purify us.

Rabbanit Shira Smiles

Judaism Young women study Torah
Young women study Torah
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Summary by Channie Koplowitz Stein

Beginning before Rosh Chodesh Adar, there are four special Shabbat Torah readings leading up to Pesach. Before Rosh Chodesh Adar we read Parshat Shekalim where we are each commanded to donate a half shekel to the Mishkan/Beit Hamikdosh.  This is followed on the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim with the reading of Parshat Zachor in which we are to remember unto perpetuity all that Amalek did to us and to erase their memory from the face of the earth.

Then, on the Shabbat preceding blessing the new moon of Nissan, we read Parshat Parah about the red heifer and the purifying function of its ashes. Finally, on the Shabbat we usher in the New Moon of Nissan, we read Parshat Hachodesh wherein Hashem instructs Moshe and shows him how to sanctify the new moon and to prepare for the Passover sacrifice. While our discussion will focus mainly on Parshat Parah, we will also note how these four seemingly separate Chapters and Shabbatot are connected.

The Tosher Rebbe begins our discussion by asking what the relevance of this reading is today. Since the instructions here refer to purifying our people from the impurity of contact with the dead so they could offer the Pascal sacrifice, why give it a special reading now when we no longer have a Beit Hamikdosh and can no longer offer these or any sacrifices? It would appear then that the reading  even without the process, is in itself a catalyst for purification, writes Rabbi Biederman in Be’er Chaim. But this purification is predicated on our belief that we have the ability to be purified. It is during this time, from Purim to Pesach, that Hashem comes down to purify us.

The Talelei Chaim, Rav Chaim Cohen “Hachalban” proposes that these four parshiot can actually be paired. The parshiot Shekalim and Zachor, are meant to help us recognize that each of us has innate kedushah, sanctity. How were we counted? By lifting up each coin in the counting process, each head of Bnei Yisroel was uplifted. This is then followed by Zachor, where we are reassured that no one, not even Amalek, can infringe on that innate sanctity. But that sanctity must be maintained and transformed to purity through the process of the Parah adumah, the red heifer, and finally culminating in the preparation of the Pascal offering itself, beginning with Rosh Chodesh Nissan.

The two pairs offer mirror images of how we are to conduct ourselves. We are taught, “Distance yourself from evil and do good.” With Shekalim we begin with doing good while Zachor exhorts us to distance ourselves and destroy evil.  In reverse order, we are told to remove the impurity of death through the Parah and then to offer the Pascal sacrifice. Before one can seek to be holy and do good, one must recognize his own sanctity and remove from his being that which defiles him. We must create a spiritual reality within ourselves to elevate us to higher levels of kedushah.

To reach a level of purity, we must step out of our egotism. We must be able to accept and do what Hashem wants of us even against our own personal desires and even when we don’t understand it, writes Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag, the Baal Hasulam in Bema’aglot Hashanah. Every mitzvah should be like the Chok, the law beyond our understanding, of which the law of parah adumah is the paradigm, that we observe because it is God’s command. Then we release ourselves from servitude to self and are free to serve Hashem. In this way, Parah is the beginning of the redemption of Pesach, for we release ourselves from the chains of materialism, writes the Slonimer Rebbe, the Netivot Shalom. Through the red heifer, we uproot egotism and channel the physical world to fulfill spiritual goals. By the time Pesach comes, we can truly be free.

In order to understand how all this is connected to the red heifer and how the ashes of the red heifer can purify one from the defilement associated with contact with death, we must first discuss man, the purpose of death, and the meaning of burial in the earth.  The Tosher Rebbe in Avodat Avodah present a profound discussion of these ideas. All creation consists of four components, earth, wind, fire and water. Man’s physical body was created from the dust of the earth. As such, man’s purpose was to elevate the physical to the spiritual. While man is drawn downward toward materialism, laziness and depression through the dust from which he was formed, the dust itself is a product of the earth, aretz, which comes from heaven above and runs (ratz) to do the will of Hashem, Aleph, the One. It is for this reason that anything connected to the earth cannot become defiled. Alternately, if an object that originated in the ground has become defiled is then replanted in the earth, it becomes purified. That first man, Adam, allowed his ego to override his obedience to God’s command and ate of the forbidden fruit. His punishment was death. While the pure soul could return to its Source, the body needed to be purified by returning to the earth, to be buried, so that it could be reunited in purity with the soul at the time of the resurrection. Burial, then, is a tremendous act of chesed that Hashem has bestowed upon us.

How does all this connect to reading the chapter on the red heifer and its power to purify from contact with death? The Tosher Rebbe continues. After the red heifer is slaughtered, the ritual dictates that its body be burned. The fire rises heavenward, like the soul after death, taking with it the water and wind (air) of the heifer. What remains are the ashes, that part of the body derived from the earth. By sprinkling these ashes on one who has become defiled, we are symbolically returning him to the earth and he is again purified as he connects to the higher origin of the dust, to aretz.

Every year when we read Parshat Parah, we should be inspired to desire to reconnect ourselves to our higher spiritual source and to overcome the depression and laziness that are rooted in our physical and egotistical component. We can wean ourselves slowly, one small step at a time, from our addiction to physical pleasures and egotistical desires. The ashes of the burnt red heifer should remind us that death came to the world when man could not control his ego. Through death, and through these ashes in life, we can reconnect to the elements of purity with which we were created.

Rabbi Miller, in citing Rashi, reminds us that the egotism and assertiveness that is the basis for man’s creativity and independence and that is the seed of haughtiness brought Adam to sin. As such, it is appropriate that the lowly hyssop which is used in the purification process be a fitting antidote to this arrogance.

It is especially on Shabbat that we read Parshat Parah, the chapter of that deals with a return to purity and spirituality, notes the Tosher Rebbe, for Shabbat itself is a day in which the original spirituality of the world is retained. On this Shabbat, we should open ourselves to accepting His will, whether we understand the reasoning or not, whether we “feel” it or not, for ultimately all Hashem’s laws are chukim, beyond our understanding as is the ritual of parah adumah, writes Rabbi Gedaliah Schorr. If we seemed overwhelmed by a particular desire or habit, instead of trying to change all at once, break it down to small steps that you can accomplish, advises Rabbi Biederman. Each little victory, like eliminating one sugary snack a day instead of swearing off all sweets at once, will bring you closer to victory and to connection to Hashem.

While the law of the Parah Adumah is the paradigmatic chok, the mitzvah of korban Pesach, the Pascal sacrifice, is also referred to in similar language as chok. Which of these is greater? Rabbi Miller in Yom Tov Shiurim cites Shemos Rabbah in asserting that the law of parah adumah is greater, for it is necessary before one can perform the mitzvah of the Pesach offering. Nevertheless, the Shvilei Pinchas, Rabbi Pinchas Friedman, Rosh Kollel of the Belzer Kollel, notes greater connections between the two mitzvoth. Rabbi Friedman notes that each of these mitzvoth is meant as a repair for a specific sin. The Passover sacrifice was meant to be an atonement for worship of the zodiac. Taking the lamb and slaughtering it in the very midst of the Egyptians who worshiped these animals as gods uprooted avodah zarah, worshiping other gods, from the psyche of Bnei Yisroel. Parah adumah, on the other hand, was an atonement for the sin of the golden calf.

While Bnei Yisroel were no longer worshiping idols, their hunger for gold and silver became insatiable, and these precious metals became their gods. Therefore, when the figure that emerged from the molten gold of the flames was a golden calf, Aharon declared, “These are your gods, Israel, who took you out of Egypt.” The parah, the heifer was a sign of plenty. Therefore the sign of Joseph who created and maintained the wealth of Egypt and sustained the world is a cow. According to Rabbi Friedman, Bnei Yisroel were not trying to replace Moshe, but rather were worshiping the gold and silver that Hashem had granted them. But they had not attributed this wealth to Hashem. The craving for idol worship had not disappeared, but had morphed into the worship of wealth and materialism, of gold and silver. Therefore, Hashem commanded us to expend as much money as necessary to secure a red heifer, and thus using the wealth He has bestowed upon us for its true purpose, in His service.

While we cannot offer the Pesach sacrifice today without the Beit Hamikdosh, our passion for accumulating wealth and our service in its worship and accumulation has not diminished. Therefore, notes the Shvilei Pinchas, the chok of parah adumah is greater than the chok of korban Pesach.

Rabbi Frand therefore notes that when Hashem commanded Bnei Yisroel to borrow golden vessels from their neighbors before leaving Egypt, He was hinting to them that all wealth is really borrowed from Hashem to Whom it all actually belongs. Hashem gives us this wealth to use as He would wish. We read Parshat Parah each year so that we can keep that perspective.

In an interesting interpretation of the blessing we give a new couple, that they build a bayit ne’eman beYisroel, a “faithful” home in Israel, Rabbi Emanuel Bernstein explains that a Jew is meant to be the master of the house so that the home serves him, and he not become the slave of the house. In other words, the home should serve as the basis for maintaining a Jewish life, should be a place he occupies, rather than becoming his total preoccupation.

Like everything in Torah, the lessons of Parshat Parah are relevant for all time, even when the particular ritual itself cannot be observed. Reading Parshat Parah should awaken in us the desire to reconnect to Hashem, to elevate the dust from which we were formed to its heavenly source, and to help us dedicate all that Hashem has blessed us with to live a life filled with purity and sanctity.