Archive for Shabbat Parah

Shabbat Parah: A New Heart

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Shabbat Parah

This week we read not only the Torah portion Ki Tissa- which describes the sin
of the Golden Calf- but also have a special concluding Torah reading and
haftarah, which, coincidentally, continue the bovine theme in the Torah readings
with a description of the “Red Heifer” needed for ritual purity. The haftarah,
from the book of Yehezkel [Ezekiel], takes the theme of ritual purity in a new
direction, making a condition of the body a metaphor for the state of the soul:

” The word of the Lord came to me: ‘O mortal, when the House of Israel dwelt on
their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and their deeds; their ways were
in My sight like the uncleanness of a menstruous woman.’ ” (Yehezkel 36:16-17)

Let’s review for a moment: in Biblical times, our ancestors had a strong concept
of ritual purity-” taharah,” or the state of being “tahor”- and its opposite,
ritual impurity, or “tumah,” or the state of being “tameh.” The reason I say
“ritual” impurity is that one who was in this state could not enter certain
areas designated for holiness, or in extreme cases, even the camp of the
Israelites. However, it wasn’t a moral failing to be tameh; you got that way
from touching a dead body, or an unclean animal, or from having certain kinds of
bodily emissions, among other examples.

Conversely, one got to be “tahor” through a process of waiting and immersion in
water, or sometimes bringing an offering. The ritual of the Red Heifer (cf.
Numbers 19) created a way for those who are tameh to become tahor again- a
subject to revisit another time.

Now, moving along to the haftarah, we see that the prophet makes a shift in
meanings: just as (in the Biblical purity system) a woman who is tameh would not
be allowed to enter certain areas, the people Israel, through their moral
failings, are no longer worthy to inherit the Land of Israel. Let me be clear
here: by no means do I endorse the idea that a woman’s menstrual cycle is
“defiling;” rather, I’m saying that one must understand the background of the
text in order to understand the larger message of the prophet, which is that
despite the people’s moral failings, they can have a “new heart” and a new
spirit. (Cf. verse 26).

We read the text of the Red Heifer on Shabbat Parah- a few weeks before Pesach-
as a reminder of the ancient system of tumah and taharah, which was an important
element of Pesach observance, since nobody in a state of ritual impurity could
eat the Pesach offering. The haftarah takes this idea and moves it into the
realm of moral preparation for the holiday: just as someone in Biblical times
could be rendered clean after impurity, so too could those who had transgressed
or strayed be brought close to the Holy One and renewed in spirit.

The point of the haftarah is not that the people are defiled: it’s that they
can, and will, be renewed, and brought home from exile. Exile, in turn, is also
not limited to where the body resides; it also describes the state of our souls,
when we feel far from “home” and alienated from our Source of Being. This is the
key idea: there is no point from which we cannot return to our Source, and when
we remember that, hope is never lost.

Shabbat Shalom,


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