Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Para
To dedicate this lesson

The Torah study is dedicated in the memory of

Yaakov Ben Behora

Parashat Para

The Mystery of Purification - and National Revival

The return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel spells the return of the soul of Israel, lost for thousands of years in the Exile, to the Eternal People as they themselves return to the vibrancy of full-fledged natural life in the land of their birth.


Rabbi David Chai Hacohen

1. "Parah" - Spiritual Preparation
2. Scriptural or Rabbinic - Reasons for Reading
3. A Glimpse at the Impenetrable
4. ...and National Revival.

Spiritual Preparation
The annual reading of the "Parah" ("Red Heifer") Torah portion falls within the thirty days preceding Passover. The holiday’s illuminating light and sanctity begin by making their effects felt upon these thirty days, and then, via these days, upon us. So that we be capable of absorbing the fragments of the holiday’s sanctity which fill the universe, we are commanded at this time to involve ourselves in the study of the laws of Passover, theory and practice, learning the prohibition against "Hametz" (leaven) and all of the intricate details therein, as well as the holiday’s other commandments: "Matza Shemurah," the "Haggadah" and the laws of the Passover Seder. In addition, we must study the laws of the Passover sacrifice, the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and the holiday’s joy.

When the Holy Temple stood and the priests carried out their sacred service therein, it was necessary for Jews to busy themselves preparing all household members for the pilgrimage to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and for taking part in the marvelous and unparalleled event of the Passover offering sacrifice and its consumption in Jerusalem amidst the sound of joyous songs and melodies of praise. Preparation meant, for the most part, self-purification and purification of those instruments needed for the offering of the Passover sacrifice, with the "Matza" (unleavened bread) and "Marror" (bitter herbs).
Today, we are removed from the "House of our Life" and the treasure of our hearts, and we possess no practical ability to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to offer up the Passover sacrifice, and to make ourselves seen before our the Almighty Who chose us to be His very own nation, and Who too is immersed in sadness his table due to the fact that his children cannot be with him. It is likewise impossible to set about taking practical steps toward purification in anticipation of those sacred light- and joy-filled moments with the King at His banquet. Despite this, we are capable of spiritual preparation, and we are even obligated in this respect - to study and occupy ourselves with the laws of ritual purity which are a necessary step toward entering the sight of the Temple. This is the reason that the sages legislated our reading the "Parah" Torah portion on the Sabbath which opens the thirty days before Passover. This selection deals with the steps toward purification from ritual impurity imparted by a corpse.

The reading of this portion possesses what is needed in order to aid in the spiritual preparation which precedes practical preparation, a preparation that will return in the future. For, the spiritual destruction of the Temple which was caused by the sins of our kings, ministers, priests, and masses set in even before the actual physical destruction. When, then, we all merit creating a spiritual house in the inner chambers of our hearts and souls, a Temple of God, we can be sure that an actual physical Temple, which will serve as a solid framework of walls and ramparts around our living Temple, is not long in coming.

Scriptural or Rabbinic - Reasons for Reading
In the classic codex of Jewish law, the Shulchan Arukh, we find an opinion, based upon the teachings of the rabbis of the Tosefot, that the reading of the Parah Torah portion is a positive commandment which obligates Jews in every generation to take the practical steps possible toward realizing the precept of the Red Heifer. The reading of this Torah portion, as God pronounced it to Moses, serves as the means. This opinion is more binding than the position which holds that the reading of the Parah section is a rabbinic ordinance resulting from the destruction of the Temple and in anticipation of its restoration. It follows that the position which holds the Parah reading to be from the Torah dictates reading and hearing it from an impeccable Torah scroll by a reader who is scrupulously exact in his pronunciation the words, letter, and vowels, and cantillation signs, as well as careful about having the intention to fulfill the commandment and to discharge others of their obligation.

According to the opinion which says that reading the Parah Torah portion today is the result of a rabbinic injunction, the reason for introducing such a practice is obvious. Today, with no Holy Temple and unable to actually carry out the commandment on its practical level, this Torah reading allows us to fulfill the obligation to remember the Temple. The question is, what is the point of the reading according to the opinion that Parah is a Torah commandment. Why was this portion read in Temple times when the actual commandment of burning the Red Heifer was being upheld? Such behavior has no precedence among other commandments, for their is no obligation to read from the Torah that section dealing with the Passover sacrifice and the consumption of Matza while these very commandments were being fulfilled. In addition, there is no law telling us to read from the Torah regarding commandments like the bringing of first fruits, the blowing of the Shofar, fasting on the Day of Atonement, dwelling in the Sukkah, etc.

Because the commandments are a kind of channel which connects the Torah’s source, the Almighty, to His beloved children below, Israel, who, though living on a material plane, are illuminated with the image of God which has been breathed into them. Therefore, with every commandment that we fulfill, we succeed in connecting with the Almighty, via our bodies, through the performance of the actual deed and, at the same time, via our thoughts and the reflections of our hearts through the inner meaning and spirit of the deed.

The sages teach that the commandment of the Red Heifer is one of the Torah’s great mysteries, so much so that even King Solomon, the wisest of men, said of it: "I thought that I would understand it, but it is far from me." According to some opinions even Moses our Teacher did not merit arriving at the logic behind it. This being the case, when it comes to the precept of the Red Heifer, we lack the ability to construct even the slightest spiritual bond with this commandment, for it is beyond our comprehension.

For this reason, a Divine precept comes and strengthens our position and commands us to read the Torah portion which deals with the commandment of the Red Heifer. The Almighty has no doubt hidden away treasures of knowledge that even just the pronunciation of which has an incomparably great effect upon the depths of the heart and soul, as well as in the heights of the realm of the holy to which our spirits are attached and from which they were hewn. In this manner, God’s kindness allows man to merit reaching wholeness in areas in which he ordinarily lacks the power to attain such a state.

A Glimpse at the Impenetrable
In light of this, it becomes necessary to understand why this commandment is beyond man’s understanding more so than any other commandment. After all, all of the commandments are the word of God, of which it is written, "You have seen that I spoke with you from heaven." In addition, Isaiah the Prophet says of them, "Just as the Heavens are above the earth, so my ways and my thoughts are above yours." This being the case, what is so special about this commandment as opposed to other commandments. After all, something of the essence of other commandments manages to reach our world, despite the elevated source from which they originate? Why is it that we are unable to get a hold on even the fringes of the commandment of the Red Heifer, making it understandable at least on our own rational plane?

I believe that the answer to this question will allow us an inkling of insight into the meaning of this commandment. The content of its details and the general meaning of this commandment, in all of its various aspects, is as follows: The priest, dressed in the priestly attire, takes a completely red heifer, which is clean of even one strand of black hair, and slaughters it opposite the entrance of the Holy Temple. After its slaughter he must burn it in its entirety on a pile of logs which have been specially designated for this purpose. Then he prepares ashes from it which will be stored away in special vessels that cannot receive impurity, like, for example, vessels made of stone. These ashes would be placed in water which had been drawn from a spring in uncontaminated vessels by children who had not yet reached the age from which impure substances can exit their bodies. These children were, in addition, raised in special courtyards that were built upon what were known as "stones of creation" such that it was impossible for them to have received ritual impurity imparted by a seen or unseen corpse from the time they were born until the moment they drew the water.

These pure waters would be used to purify humans or vessels which had been contaminated by impurity imparted by a corpse. Such people would have to wait seven says to reach purity. Via sprinkling these water from a bundle of hyssop branches on the third and seventh day after becoming ritually impure, and after immersion in a ritual bath, one becomes purified and can once again enter the Holy Temple and take part in the Sacred service therein. This purification process is effective specifically for one who has become contaminated through direct contact with a human corpse, what is known as "Avi Avot HaTum’ah," the most severe source of ritual impurity. And while there are many other types of impurity which the Torah warns against - among them that transmitted by the dead body of any of the eight species of reptile or rodent listed in Leviticus 11:29-30, the corpse of a mammal, a man suffering from gonorrhea, and more - none of them are as severe as that transmitted by a human corpse. Such impurity violates and disrupts man’s sanctity through contact with a dead body, or through lifting it even without touching it. Even being present in a house in which there is a human corpse results in contamination, for the impurity is transferred via the air. Even the air above the grave of a dead person becomes contaminated, ad infinitum. This is what is known as "tent impurity," a form of impurity which, unlike other forms of impurity, contaminates the air.

What is the reason for such stringency when it comes to corpse-transmitted impurity? After all, death is a natural phenomenon. How can one claim that nature is undesirable or deleterious? We might answer this question with an idea expressed by our beloved mentor, Rabbi Tzvi Yehudah Kook zt"l: Because the soul of man, while it resides in the physical body, illuminates the body so intensely and is so intimately interwoven with it, when it departs, an unbearable void is created which leads to an abjection and fall of its entire surroundings. One cannot say that death is "natural," for the clear and refined truth is that life is natural and death stands in opposition to life, anti-nature at its foundation.
The foundation of creation and the very existence of the universe, which finds a concentrated expression in the formation of man because of the great miracle which the Creator performed by connecting the heavens and the earth, and, in man, the body and soul. This is the greatest wonder that exists in creation: How is it that the Divine spirit can bring to life to the soil and the body in the way that God gives life to the entire universe? The separation of the soul from the body is unbearably cataclysmic to creation itself. Hence, it brings in its wake the most severe type of impurity, "Avi Avot HaTum’ah." Becoming purified from such contamination may be likened to a return of the force of the original creative act - a Genesis, remarriage of body and soul, the light of the Creator illuminating creation.

In light of this, the impossibility of understanding the mystery of the Red Heifer’s ashes becomes clear, for we do not possess the power to grasp the very foundation of our creation and existence. Our entire capacity of understanding is restricted to the existence in which we at present find ourselves; it cannot get at the absolute source of life itself. Because the process of purification from contamination transmitted from a human corpse touches upon the very roots of
renewed life, we are unable to understand this mystery.

...And National Revival
From here we must proceed and consider the period which we ourselves live in, the period of the rebirth of the People of Israel and their return to the life-giving Land of Israel. According to Jewish law, a Jew who leaves the Land of Israel, even if he only flies over another land in an airplane, becomes contaminated as if he had made contact with a corpse. The reason for this is that the soil of the lands outside of Israel, as well as their air, transmit the most severe level of impurity. This fact serves to inform us that outside of Israel there is no life for the Divine and lofty national soul of Israel. What’s more, the Divine Presence does not dwell in the Diaspora. Divine Presence is a phenomenon particular to the Land of Israel - the "Land of Life." The redemptive process of the return of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel, then, is a process of the return of the soul of Israel, which has been lost for thousands of years in the Exile, to the Eternal People as they themselves return to the vibrancy of full-fledged natural life in the land of their birth. And so, we find that there is a connection between the purification process via the Red Heifer, and the modern Ingathering of Exiles and Israel’s national consolidation in our time.

Thus, the sages established the verses in the Book of Ezekiel, which deal with the return of our nation to its Land and possession, as the Haftarah portion accompanying "Parah" reading. This process is described by the Prophet in terms of a sprinkling living waters which purify us and cause the Divine spirit to return to us. From here we learn that this process, too, is a lofty secret far beyond our understanding. It must be understood that if the ashes of the Red Heifer with their purifying powers are bound up with the Resurrection of the Dead, then the return of Israel to its land and the return of their heavenly spirit to the national body is comparable to a newly created world - a world which is being created in these very days and before our very eyes. In this process of creation before the appearance of the light, light and darkness exist together in a mixed state.

This is a complex situation, a kind of "Tohu VeVohu" at the outset of creation, empty and lacking form, in which nothing is clear and simple, and a dark and undesirable element is intermingled together with the light of Israel - a light which is struggling to break through the clouds of exile and gain possession of the hallowed land. Yet, one must be aware that the Word of God which commanded us to differentiate between light and darkness is alive and well and gradually being fulfilled every day, and just as at the end of the process of purification through the ashes of the Red Heifer, the contaminated individual is made pure and at last enters the Temple, so too, we will return to the Holy mount - may this take place speedily in our day.

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