Shabbat Parah 5776 - April 2, 2016

Post date: Apr 7, 2016 4:00:04 AM

4/2/16 Shabbat Parah 5776

This week is Shabbat Parah. As we approach Pesach, we recount many of the rituals and requirements for the festival of Pesach, beginning with this week’s discussion of the parah adumah – the red heifer. While a ‘red heifer’ has certainly made it’s way into the secular lexicon, the book of Bamidbar (Numbers) is focused on the necessity of the red heifer to purify those who have been made ritually unclean.

This cow, an animal without any blemishes, which must never have been put to work, was slaughtered and burned up completely - nothing of it was to be eaten - then its ashes were mixed in water. This water was then sprinkled on people in rites of ritual purification.

This law of the red heifer is shrouded in mystery. It is considered to be a חוק, (hoq) a law that does not have an obvious relationship to a societal good, as contrasted with a משפת, such as the prohibition against theft. Rashi saw this red heifer in relation to the communal sin of the golden calf, which Moses burned to ashes, mixed with water, and forced the wayward Israelites to drink as punishment for their idolatry.

Many activities in the Torah render one unclean, but I want to take for a moment the act of touching a dead body.

In the Israelite community, touching a corpse was necessary, of course, in order to properly prepare the body for burial. Thus, finding the red heifer was necessary for the practice of common life cycle rituals: after someone died – in order to purify oneself after preparing the body – as well as leading up to Pesach, to purify oneself for the festival.

Bamidbar 19:13 notes if one touches a dead body and does not purify oneself, v’nichrat ha’nefesh – his soul shall be cut off from those of the people Israel. In ancient Judea, at the time of the Sanhedrin, excommunication was the most severe punishment next to the death penalty, which was rarely used. This punishment, the cutting off of a soul, has always frightened me. In fact, as a child, it was the threat of this punishment that motivated me to keep kosher l’Pesach, to fast on Yom Kippur, and, for a time, to keep Shabbat.

Judaism, like many ancient religions, threatens punishment frequently – as straightforward as death, or as convoluted as one’s soul being cut off from its people. Why, as we approach Pesach, are we reminded of this particular punishment? And why in connection to touching a corpse?

Pesach, fundamentally, is the story of refugees. It is the story of fleeing oppression, of running away, which, by its very nature is a loss. Perhaps loss of a life of suffering, but a loss nonetheless. Loss is always difficult, always painful. Death, of course, is the ultimate loss. Grieving after loss of a loved one is among the deepest pain we can know as human beings.

So here, on Shabbat Parah, we see the Rabbis connecting for us the loss of our lives in Egypt with the act of grieving. I would argue that the Rabbis have us read this passage as we approach Pesach in order to legitimize the loss we experienced leaving Egypt. We see the pain of this loss when the Israelites complain to Moshe as they walk through the desert. Immediately after the greatest miracle they ever witnessed, the entire Egyptian army drowning in the sea they just crossed, they whine and moan about the life they left behind, and what does God do? He does not admonish and punish the Israelites. Dafka, he rains mannah down from the heavens for them. God understands here that the Israelites are struggling and are in need of comfort.

The creation and worship of the golden calf itself filled a void, a loss. Moses was on Mount Sinai for over a month, receiving the tablets of the law. The people, who were just recently released slaves, felt abandoned by Moses and indeed by God. They had not yet developed the self confidence borne of a life of independence.

Even when we have left the worst of situations, the leaving itself creates pain.

Here, the Rabbis give us permission to feel that pain and loss, and to become tahor, become purified again. We, too, can give ourselves permission to feel sadness after losses, even when what we have lost is a life of slavery.

When we experience pain and loss, the worst punishment imaginable is further isolation - being cut off from our community. Thus, Shabbat Parah commands us to do everything necessary – even inspecting the hair of seemingly red cows to make sure they are completely red – in order to keep ourselves as part of the community. Our community can help us move through pain and grief, cope with change, and enter a life of freedom, ready and willing to see its beauty.

Embracing a new life stage or situation can feel daunting. In describing the purification after someone has died, Bamidbar specifies that we must use mayim chayim, translated as ‘running’ waters. This is not the ordinary water used for purification in other contexts, but flowing, living water. These prescriptions for purification after a loss – sacrifice of a red heifer, purification with living waters – remind us that it is no small feat to recover after the pain of losing and grieving. We are effectively required by the Torah to take our time in moving through pain.

Time and togetherness – these are what we require to move through loss. Both can be challenging. Someone who is grieving is difficult to embrace. Time pressures us incessantly. And yet, these are the very things Bamidbar reminds us that we require. We are challenged by the Torah to find both time and togetherness in the face of grief and pain, and to allow these to move us back to be integral members of our community, to lead us to freedom.

Yvonne Asher

Yvonne Asher received her Masters of Jewish Education from the Jewish Theological Seminary and is a doctoral student in clinical psychology at Suffolk University in Boston, MA.