This Week’s Torah Portion
RABBI UHRBACH ON PARASHAT HASHAVUA
MARCH 16, 2012 — PARASHAT PARAH
“Passover Cleaning: Making Room for Mystery”
The sages of the Mishnah established four special, supplementary Torah readings to be read in the period on four Shabbatot leading up to Passover. The third of these, which is always read between Purim and Pesah, is Parashat Parah (Num. 19:1-22) — an entire chapter devoted to the strange ritual of the parah adumah, the “red heifer.”
What is the parah adumah and why is it singled out to be read just now?
The parah adumah refers to a process whereby those who became ritually impure through contact with death could re-purify themselves, enabling them to once again participate in the priestly system of offerings. In this sense, the connection with Passover is clear: when the Temple stood and the Israelites made actual Pesah offerings, only those in a state of ritual purity could eat of it. Although the unique categories of ritual purity and impurity (tahora and tumah) are no longer applicable, and have no precise equivalent in contemporary life, by analogy the reading is a good reminder that if we want to participate fully in the freedom and spiritual elevation which Passover offers, we need not to “cleanse” not only our kitchens, but also ourselves.
But our question remains. Many Torah passages speak of purification. This one is singularly difficult to understand and make meaningful. And we’re not the only ones who find this passage opaque. The rabbis chose this passage as the paradigmatic hok – a Divine directive that is simply incomprehensible to human beings. So why choose to highlight it in this way, at this time?
I’d like to suggest that it is precisely because it is so mysterious that it is an important reading for us right now.
The parah adumah serves two functions, one stated expressly in the Torah, the other in the midrash. According to the Torah, it addresses the very particular impurity arising from contact with death. According to the midrash (basing itself on the obvious zoological link), the red heifer atones for the very particular sin of the golden calf. In each case, mystery comes to address a difficulty in dealing with mystery.
When we speak here of contact with death, we mean not only literal death, but everything that “death” may symbolize for us: illness, poverty, oppression, and suffering of all kinds (whether “natural”, or as a result of man’s inhumanity to men). And when we speak of impurity resulting from that contact, we are really speaking of the chink (or chasm) in our faith that results from our experience of and contemplation of all that suffering. In other words, we are speaking of the irresolvable, unanswerable, mysterious problem of theodicy.
In contrast, the sin of the golden calf derives from a different challenge in dealing with mystery: our desire to concretize, control, contain, and completely comprehend our positive experiences of the Divine in the world. The Israelites created the golden calf almost immediately after they had been redeemed from Egypt, delivered at the Sea of Reeds, and vouchsafed the remarkable encounter with God at Sinai. And the golden calf was not intended to be a rejection of God; rather, it was an attempt to keep God (or at least, the sense of protection, security, power and elevation they derived from God) close, in a concrete form they could see, feel, and at least partially control.
Today, too, we are vulnerable to both these pitfalls in encountering the mysterious ups and downs of life. Challenging times may challenge our faith — an encounter with literal or metaphorical death may raise unanswerable questions. On the flip side, we may be so desirous of grasping and controlling life’s blessings, that we may have difficulty staying with the mystery underlying them, trying instead to rationally explain (dismiss?) the miracles (large and small) we encounter every day, making “golden calves” of science, history, human industry, and our own intellects.
But if we are to fully partake of the Pesah offering — of the joy, the liberation, the renewal and rebirth — we need to cleanse ourselves of both these pitfalls. We need to re-enter (at least for a time) the naive faith that once enabled us to follow God out of slavery and into a new world order, unmarred by the “impurity” from all the encounters with death and all our questions of theodicy (“It is wonderful to celebrate our release from slavery, but why were we enslaved to begin with?”). We explored these questions on Purim; now we need to bracket them, and temporarily put them aside. At the same time, we need to awaken our child-like spring-like sense of wonder and awe — allowing ourselves to see the redemption from Egypt and all subsequent redemptions large and small — as the miracles they are, untainted by our sometimes idolatrous reliance on our own agency and understanding. On Purim we read a story in which God’s name was absent, and we humans saved the day. Now we need to once again allow for the presence of the Divine in our lives.
In other words, part of our preparation for Passover — for establishing anew our relationship with God — is increasing our tolerance for mystery. And how we do that is… a mystery. A mysterious, incomprehensible ritual that reminds us that sometimes impurity — suffering, oppression, death — arrives inexplicably, and we are left to try to bear it without rational explanation. But at the same time purification — renewal, redemption, healing, revitalization, and hope — also arrives inexplicably, if only we can embrace it, even without rational explanation.