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Shabbat Parah: Clean Hands and a Pure Heart

Updated: Dec 24, 2023

March 26th will be the first day of the month of Nisan, the month in which Passover occurs. That means that next Shabbat, March 21, is Shabbat Mevarchim, the Shabbat on which we will officially announce and pray for the new month. Reverse engineering, that makes this week Shabbat Parah- one of the most mysterious, least understood Shabbatot in the entire calendar! Shabbat Parah is one of four special Shabbatot in the 6 weeks before Passover.

We know what Shabbat is; what is Parah? Parah is a cow. But not just any cow! The special, extra, maftir, Torah reading for this morning is from the book of Numbers, chapter 19, verses 1-22. You can find it on p. 1145 in your chummashim.

With Passover looming on the horizon, the concern was to remind the people that only those who were ritually pure could enjoy the Passover offering. And how does one become pure again after defilement? By the ritual described in this chapter, the red heifer, whose ashes were combined with water to purify those who were defiled. So Shabbat Parah is essentially a public service announcement- Pesach is coming and it’s time to get cleaned up and ready! “Clean hands and a pure heart”- a verse from Psalms, and (Psalm 24:4), never more relevant than in this moment!

The haftarah, Ezekiel 36:16-38, also deals with issues of being cleansed from contamination, but the impurity in this case symbolizes human sinfulness. Just like physical impurity, sins, spiritual impurity, according to the prophet, CAN be overcome. As God says in Ezekiel 36:25,26: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes . And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you.”

Is this confusing? Well, if so, you are in good company. No less a brilliant mind than that of King Solomon was reputed to have said, “I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah but as soon as I reached this chapter about the red heifer I searched, probed and questioned, I said I will get wisdom, but it is far from me”.” (King Solomon, as quoted in Yalkut Shimoni 759) The Sefer haChinnuch, an anonymous text from 13th century Spain, writes as follows- “My hands grow feeble and I fear to open my mouth at all, even with the plain meaning. For I saw that our Sages of blessed memory spoke at length of the profundity of its mystery and the greatness of its theme. . . “

The requirements for the red heifer are that it be completely of one color, (some say it is brown), and that it had never been yoked.  This symbolizes a sense of freedom.  The animal was sacrificed and its ashes dissolved with water and sprinkled on someone in need of purification. The priest who will deal with the ashes lived separately for 7 days, he was quarantined!, and was sprinkled daily with some of the previous ashes. This time of alone-ness for the priest to come into a sense of purity is a reminder to each of us that introspection and alone-ness may be an important part of our own spiritual development.

There is a middah of silence/hitbodedut. Silence is necessary in order to hear and to learn; silence is necessary to cultivate our internal life and learn to shut out the distractions of the world. It is for good reason that we include a period of silence in every service- the Amidah. A chassidic commentary, quoted in our chummashim, notes that, “The red cow was to be without blemish and without having borne a yoke. Similarly, if a man thinks he is without blemish we may be sure he has never accepted the yoke of Heaven. For if he had he would know that he had many faults.”

Shabbat Parah reminds us that Passover is coming. The holiday of Passover means that it has been 6 months since the High Holidays. Perhaps, maybe likely?, we have gotten off track? Whatever our resolutions were for 5780, perhaps we need a reminder? Shabbat Parah offers us the opportunity to reflect on where we need to do teshuvah? Where do we feel a need for purification in our own lives?

Shabbat Parah reminds us that however far we have strayed, we have thepower through the choices that we make, to purify ourselves. We all make mistakes, we all do wrong, we all hurt each other and ourselves. We pray, “V’taher libenu lavdecha b’emet- purify our hearts to serve You, God, in truth.” As Reb Nachman of Bratslav put it, “If we are not better tomorrow than we are today, than what do we need tomorrow for?”

We can no longer rely on ritual sacrifices for our own purification- now- the choice is in our hands!

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