Thursday, 20 Mar 2014

Written by René Pfertzel

Have you ever had an eerie feeling when, seating in a synagogue, you hear strange stories about sacrifices, ancient rituals, and odd narratives? For sure, this Shabbat will not be different then.

Purim is just over, and now we have to get ready for the next step of our Jewish year, Pesach. This Shabbat is one of the special Shabbatot preceding Pesach, and is called Shabbat Parah. We read as maftir Numbers 19:1-22 which discusses a ritual involving a red heifer, a parah adumah. The Red Heifer, which had no blemish, and which has never worn a yoke, was slain before the Cohen Gadol outside the camp, and burnt together with cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson wool. Then, the ashes were mixed together with water. This water was sprinkled over people who have been rendered impure (tameh), but contact with a dead body. The person who sprinkles the ashes and the water becomes contaminated in the process. This has of course intrigued commentators through the ages. Rabbi Leonard A. Sharzer, lecturer at JTS, says: “It is said that everything in nature contains its opposite. We are reminded, as we approach the paradigmatic festival of liberation, that we were freed not to be able to act without restraint, but in order to establish a just society… Our freedom is one which comes with obligations”. This is why the red heifer has never worn a yoke. We achieve full mastery over the animal within us (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch). The ancient Israelites have taken control of their animal side, and show that they are free to shape the moral decisions that affect their lives and their society.

This ritual is also purification from death. According to Hirsch, mixing the “ash” of the slaughtered cow with the “living water” demonstrates that each human being is endowed with a “never dying immortal spiritual being” (see his commentary on Numbers 19:1-10). It is as though after the killing of 75,000 people by the Jews of the Persian Empire at the end of Megillat Esther, we need to wipe out this very uncomfortable narrative by a ritual reaffirming life over death. We need to enter the next step of our communal fate, the exodus from Egypt, by atoning for a disturbing memory. Of course, this interpretation does not fit the chronological order of our holy history, but it is a step between Purim and Pesach and, as such, it allows us to read in multiple ways the threads that connect the different moments of our calendar.

Purim and Pesach are two moments where death is present. The wicked Haman wanted to destroy us, and thanks to Esther and Mordechai, we destroyed him and his accomplices. It is clear that the slavery in Egypt was a kind of death. It is the death of freedom, individuality and hope. In both situations, our ancestors had to be proactive; they needed to make thoughtful decisions regarding the survival of the people. The stakes are high. Every year, we celebrate, commemorate events, some tragic, some joyful, always the same, but with readings that vary from year to year.

The Red Heifer ritual is incomprehensible. Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai said that its observance is only justified because it is within the Torah law (Pesikta de-Rav Kahana 4:7). Moreover, since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., this ritual is no longer in use. However, at a time when there are threats to the Jews of Ukraine, this ritual, as well as its recollection between Purim and Pesach is a reminder that human life matters more than anything else and we need to be proactive in advocating freedom for all the people in Crimea, in Odessa, in Ukraine, and in the entire region.

René Pfertzel
5th year rabbinic student LBC

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.