Shabbat Parah! Good-bye Useless Guilt!

Holy Cow!
 It's Shabbat Parah!
Ridding Ourselves of Useless Guilt

Parshiot: Shemot, Vayakhel/Pekudei
Maftir: (Bamidbar/Numbers 19 (1-22)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36 (16-38) (16-36 for Sefardim)

Do you suffer from pangs of guilt or shame? Do even really old memories bog you down and leave you feeling guilty or ashamed? What can you do about it? First, we all need to realize that nursing our "regrets" and being stuck in a place of guilt or shame stands in our way of serving our holy purpose in this world and that untreated guilt or shame continually works to extinguish the holy spark in our neshama (soul). You probably think that Rabbi Yonatan forgot what time of year this is, sounds like a homily for Yom Kippur! But don't forget that according to the Torah, the first month of the year (Rosh Hashanah) is only about a week away! It is what we now call the Hebrew month of Nissan, the month of Passover, the month of Spring (in Israel) and a time of new beginnings. As it is written: ״In the fourteenth day of the first month at evening is the Lord’s Passover״ (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:5).

 ה בַּחֹדֶשׁ הָרִאשׁוֹן בְּאַרְבָּעָה עָשָׂר לַחֹדֶשׁ בֵּין הָעַרְבָּיִם פֶּסַח לַיהוָֹה: 

In order to prepare ourselves for the first month of the year and the coming of Passover, we read about the unique ritual of the פרה אדומה the red heifer that atoned and purified the impure of Israel (Parshat Chukat, Numbers 19).

What is the connection between a holy red cow and spiritual preparation for Passover? Let's find out! In order to do so, I will address the following questions:

(1) What is this strange purification ritual for which we need a red heifer? (2) Why do we read about it at this time of year? (3) Being that we no longer offer sacrifices (including the paschal offering) since the destruction of the Temple and, therefore, have no need for the purification offered by the red heifer, nor can we locate a single red heifer that meets the biblical criteria for the ritual these days, what is the meaning of this ritual/Shabbat Parah for us as contemporary Jews?!
(4) Most importantly, and returning to our original question about our own guilt and shame, how can God help us this Shabbat to remove that guilt and shame and give us a new heart and spirit? As it says in this week's Haftarah, "A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put inside you; and I will take away the heart of stone" (Ezekiel 36:26).

The World Cow by Franz Marc, 1913

(1) What is this strange ritual? Let's take a look at the Torah text:

Bamidbar/Numbers 19 (For full text with Hebrew, click here:
...They bring you a red heifer...which has no blemish, and upon which never carried a load; And you will give it to Eleazar the priest, so that he may bring it forth outside the camp, and one shall slay it in front of him; And Eleazar the priest shall take of its blood with his finger, and sprinkle of its blood directly before the Tent of Meeting seven times;  And one shall burn the heifer in his sight; its skin, and its flesh, and its blood, with its dung, shall he burn; And the priest shall take cedar wood, and hyssop, and scarlet, and cast it into the midst of the burning of the heifer... And a man that is clean shall gather up the ashes of the heifer, and lay them up outside the camp in a clean place, and it shall be kept for the congregation of the people of Israel for a water of sprinkling; it is a purification offering. 

That is it in a nutshell. An entirely spotless, unblemished red heifer that has never worked a day in her life is slaughtered, burned and mixed with fragrant spices, cedar wood and so forth, and the ashes are blended with water for the purpose of a purification sprinkling. Of course there are many questions to be answered about this ritual, but what we are discussing is why read it at this time and how it relates to our own personal purification from guilt and shame. So let's move on to step two!

(2) Why is Shabbat Parah / the reading of the matter of the red heifer brought to our attention at this time of year? 

Have you ever heard of Pesach Sheni (the second Passover [sacrifice])? Yes, that is correct! There is, according to the Torah, a Moed Bet (a second chance Passover) for those who find themselves impure on the 14th of Nissan, and are, therefore, unable to sacrifice the paschal lamb at that time. So they offer their paschal sacrifice on the 14th of the second month (Iyar) 
(see Bamidbar/Number 9:9-13) 
[For full text: click below]

How were the impure people (who had come into contact with the dead, for example) to be purified in order to enable them to make the Passover sacrifice? You may have guessed that it was through a sprinkling purification using the ashes of the red heifer! Wonderful! But what does that have to do with us today? As I already mentioned, we don't sacrifice a paschal lamb anymore (not unless you are a Samaritan living either in Quiryat Luza or Holon in Israel)!

We find a clue to the answer to this question in last week's Torah reading, "Ki Tisa," where we read about the sin of the Golden Calf. Perhaps reading about the golden calf (egel hazahav) at this time of year reminds us of our People's greatest sin and source of guilt in the Torah, the betrayal of our God in the making of a golden calf. Think about it, thousands of years later while we are reading the story of the Exodus, many of us are still experiencing a sense of guilt and shame or even lament over this fateful act of infidelity toward the Holy One, blessed be He. How could we have done this terrible thing, this betrayal of our God, who had just lovingly saved

The Golden Calf, James Tissot
us from slavery and brought us out of Egypt! I say WE, because we have all been taught and read yearly in the Passover Haggadah that it is as though God brought Us out of Egypt. As the Torah commands us: 
"Remember this day that you came out from Egypt" (Shemot 13:3). 
If we can feel such guilt and shame about our People's betrayal of God more than 3,000 years ago, it is easy to understand how we might carry around a little guilt from 20 or 30 years ago in our own lives! Of course, guilt is no stranger to the Jewish People; it is no wonder that one of the offerings made in ancient times was the Guilt (Asham) offering! Wouldn't you like to see your own guilt waft away like smoke from the altar? 

As Merav, my brilliant spouse, so astutely pointed out: perhaps there is a connection between the purifying of the Israelite People with the Red Heifer that acts as a counter balance (an antidote) to the sin of the Golden Calf? (Calf/Cow) There is such a midrash (interpretation from the Rabbinic period 2,000 years ago). We read in Midrash Aggadah and Tanchuma Chukat 8 the following teaching:

A red cow: This can be compared to the son of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace. They said, “Let his mother come and clean up the mess.” Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf.

Very interesting, but who is the cow and who is the calf in this analogy? Certainly the calf is Israel, but what about the cow? I believe the meaning is that God (the Mother) will clean up our mess! Why would God want to clean up our mess and let us off the hook? Is that good parental pedagogy?

Perhaps we can think about this in another way. God knows that if we get stuck in our own state of guilt and shame -- we will become lost in despair. That despair can render us devoid of our God-given life force (חיות) and cause us to

feel unworthy. When we feel this way, it is impossible to get back to our mission, the reason we are here, that is, to repair ourselves and the world (Tikun Atzmeinu and Tikun Olam). Those two goals go hand-in-hand. We can't be a source of good, or a vessel for God's holiness in the world, if we feel "impure"! In other words, God wants us to have a way to move past our deep-seated guilt and shame so that we may be able to actualize our full potential, that is, to be the best person that we can be and to help God bring more love, more healing and more wholeness to a broken world.

(3) What is the meaning of this ritual for contemporary Jews?

For most contemporary Jews, even more traditional ones, reading about the "red heifer" for posterity's sake, meaning, for the sake of future generations -- in order that we or our progeny will be prepared for the building of the Third Temple and the reinstatement of the paschal and all other sacrifices -- creates dissonance with our understanding of progressive, rather than regressive, Judaism. If not for the sake of building a Third Temple and offering the
paschal lamb at some point in the future, then why read this passage annually? I believe that for us today, this reading comes to remind us that we need a concrete way to let go of our transgressions and mistakes. We need to be able to find our way back to our truest and best selves. If that is true, then how can God help us do that? If we can't slaughter a red heifer and use it for our purification, then there must be a more self-actualized purification process! 

(4) Spiritual Preparation: Purifying ourselves of deep-seated guilt and shame in preparation for Passover

We don't have to turn to modern commentary in order to understand this sentiment. The prophet Ezekiel, in this week's special reading from the Prophets for Shabbat Parah, expresses this process quite eloquently and in a very touching way.  

Ezekiel 36: 25-28

I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean;... 26  And I will give you a new heart and set a new spirit inside you; and I will take away the heart of stone from your body, and I will give you a heart of flesh. 27  And I will set my spirit inside you, and cause you to follow my law, and  keep My and faithfully observe My rules. 28  And you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.

יחזקאל לו:כה-כח
כה וְזָרַקְתִּי עֲלֵיכֶם מַיִם טְהוֹרִים וּטְהַרְתֶּם מִכֹּל טֻמְאוֹתֵיכֶם וּמִכָּל־גִּלּוּלֵיכֶם אֲטַהֵר אֶתְכֶם:  כו וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב חָדָשׁ וְרוּחַ חֲדָשָׁה אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת־לֵב הָאֶבֶן מִבְּשַׂרְכֶם וְנָתַתִּי לָכֶם לֵב בָּשָׂר:  כז וְאֶת־רוּחִי אֶתֵּן בְּקִרְבְּכֶם וְעָשִׂיתִי אֵת אֲשֶׁר־בְּחֻקַּי תֵּלֵכוּ וּמִשְׁפָּטַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶם:  כח וִישַׁבְתֶּם בָּאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נָתַתִּי לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם וִהְיִיתֶם לִי לְעָם וְאָנֹכִי אֶהְיֶה לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים:

What a beautiful image as we move toward Passover (apropos also called חג האביב the Holiday of Spring, a time of renewal) that we might receive a new heart and a new spirit from the Holy One, who purifies us and takes away our source of humiliation. The text tells us that our heart of stone will be removed and we will receive a heart of flesh. What does that mean? The Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 12th/13th century, Provence) explains that a heart of flesh is a soft heart that is willing to receive "the good."

לב בשר. לב רך ונכון לקבל הטוב

Why must we give up our guilt? The simple reason is that feeling guilty perpetually can not make our transgressions disappear, but it will get in the way of our seeing, accepting and receiving the good in our lives and bringing that good into the lives of others. Sometimes we find it very difficult to forgive ourselves and we carry around harmful guilt and shame. Sometimes this is because others can not find it in their hearts to see how pained we are by our own mistakes and how sorry we truly are for what we have done. But the phenomenon of the red heifer comes to assure us that if God (the Mother) is willing to
atone and purify us, then we ourselves have divine permission to move on, knowing that we can do better. This Passover season (spring in Israel, fall in Australia), we can turn over a new leaf, shedding our old leaves so that we can grow new ones. 

Shabbat Parah Shalom--A blessed "Holy Cow" Shabbat to all!
B'vracha, Rabbi Yonatan


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  1. Rabbi, this is truly an example of *inspirational* Torah.

    I love the idea that the season/festival of Aviv, of rebirth, of renewal is preceded by a tangible opportunity for repentance, and receiving a new heart! What a beautiful concept!!! So not only can we renew ourselves during Yamim Nora'im, but also now, at the opposite time of year.

    And does that mean on Shabbat, our "extra soul" also receives a new heart? Is it also renewed?? I would like to think that too.

    So, as our family cleans, polishes, refreshes and renews our entire home ready for the renewal festival, I will now *also* keep in mind that we can (and should) also renew our hearts, so that we can all be "free men" at the seder, and beyond.

    Shabbat Shalom Rabbi!


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