March 21st-22nd, 2003
18 Adar II, 5763
Time of Purification
This Shabbos marks the third of the four special Sabbaths leading up to
Pesach, on which we take out a second Torah scroll and listen to a special
reading following the weekly portion. We call this Shabbos, "Shabbos Parah,"
because the special reading (Numbers: 19, 1-22) concerns the laws of the
parah aduma (red heifer), whose ashes are required to spiritually purify a
person from contact with a dead body and enable him/her to enter the
grounds of the Temple.
What is the connection between the red heifer and the upcoming festival,
such that our Sages would decree that we read about it at this particular
time of the year? Eliyahu
Ki-Tov, in his classic exposition of the Jewish calendar, The Book of our
Heritage [a set of volumes every Jewish home should contain!] explains:
"The purpose of reading this passage [of the red heifer] before Nisan [the
month of Passover], is to remind all who had
been defiled by contact with the dead,
to purify themselves in order to be able to offer the
Pesach-sacrifice [in the Temple in Jerusalem] in its proper time. The
reading was set sufficiently
before Pesach, so that even those who lived at a distance
from Jerusalam (and departed from their
homes by Rosh Chodesh Nisan [the start of the
month]), might have been instructed to that
Although, because of our sins, the Sanctuary was destroyed, and we have
neither ‘sacrificial-offerings’ nor ‘purification,’ we nevertheless hold
fast to the [Torah’s] teachings of ‘purification [taharah],’ and we study
its precepts in the proper time. It is thus
regarded as if we had purified ourselves from
our defilement, and rendered ourselves fit for
bringing our offerings in their set
time." (Volume II, pp. 105-106, Feldheim edition)
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch stresses the immense importance of this
concept of taharah, spiritual purity, asserting that it is the very basis
of the Torah, "the essential preliminary to the whole of the Divine Law."
(The Jewish Year: Volume II, p. 369) He defines taharah as the moral
freedom of the human soul here in its earthly frame, its capability to
purify and elevate the physical body--which otherwise, would be completely
subject to the "iron bonds of natural law." This capability of the soul,
this powerful "purity," stems from the Divine likeness of its nature, for
it is the very "breath of G-d." ["And Hashem G-d formed the man of dust
from the ground, and He blew into his nostrils the soul of life…." Genesis
The opposite of taharah is tumah, spiritual impurity, which Hirsch defines
as "the subjection, the bondage, the mortality of everything earthly which
has not raised itself to the level of genuinely human existence."
Spiritual slavery, in other words.
We can now understand why a dead human body conveys the greatest tumah, or
impurity, because it represents the part of our nature (our physical,
earthly component) that is subjected to the iron necessity of natural
law…that part of our human nature that is mortal. "And the dust returns to
the earth as it was; and the spirit returns to G-d Who gave it."
The ashes of the red heifer, for reasons we cannot comprehend (this is why
it is the quintessential chok, or Torah decree that transcends our limited
human wisdom), removes the spiritual impurity conveyed by a dead body. A
person can then enter the hallowed grounds of the Temple…to offer the
Pesach offering (or for any other purpose).
Before Pesach, which is the festival of our freedom (both physical and
spiritual), our task is to remove all traces of (spiritual) slavery and
bondage from our lives. We can then be free to assume the yoke of G-d’s
commandments. Having been freed from all human and earthly masters (like
Pharaoh…and the evil inclination, symbolized by the chametz we assiduously
remove from our homes)--we can fully enter the service of our true Master,
the Holy One, Blessed be He.
This is why we read about the red heifer this Shabbos.
Taharah: that’s the spiritual priority of the season! The S’fas Emes
(great modern commentary on the Torah) tells us that these days prior to
Pesach are specially "charged," if you will, with purification potential.
"A pure heart (lev tahor), create within me, O
G-d," sang King David…and we can take up that song (and tap into that
longing) with special power at this time of the year. It’s a happy song,
too, for purity--the consciousness of our spiritual freedom, of the
"divine image" that characterizes the human soul and of our undying
connection to G-d Himself--leads to the greatest joy.
Torah is the greatest source of purity we have, at least in the absence of
the red heifer (until she appears on the scene…quickly, we hope). How
wonderful it would be if we all (myself very much included) tried to
strengthen ourselves in our study of Torah in the next several weeks.
Especially--if I may suggest--the Torah portions at the beginning of the
Book of Exodus that deal with the redemption from Egypt and Pharaoh. Then
we can be well prepared to conduct (or participate in) our Seder meals, to
actually see ourselves as leaving Mitzrayim (Egypt).
Who knows? Perhaps we will be preparing ourselves for something even
greater. For our Sages tell us that just as Nisan was the month of our
past redemption, so too, it will be the month of the future redemption.
And with world-shaking events taking place at this very moment in the
Middle East (and at least one tyrant meeting a most bitter end), it feels
to me like the messianic springtime all mankind eagerly awaits may be just
around the corner. May we have the strength to tear ourselves away from
CNN, and hasten that messianic process through the purity (and
purification) of our prayers, our mitzvos and our Torah study.
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Into Genesis |
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