Parshat Ki Tissa -Shabbat Parah
March 2, 2002
Parshat Parah is the third of the four special Shabbatot which precede Pesach. The special maftir reading for this Shabbat concerns the ritual of the red heifer sacrifice. It prescribes the means by which a person who has become ritually impure through contact with the dead can attain ritual purity by being sprinkled with water containing ashes from the red heifer. We read this parashah before Pesach so that those who are ritually impure will be reminded that they must become pure in order to eat the Korban Pesach (the Passover sacrifice) during the upcoming festival. While the maftir Torah reading deals with actual ritual impurity, the haftarah is concerned with spiritual impurity The prophet Ezekiel makes use of the imagery of impurity to describe Israel’s sinful moral state: “O mortal, when the House of Israel dwelt on their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and deeds; their ways were in My [God’s] eyes like the uncleanness of a menstruous woman” (Ezekiel 36:17)
Rabbi David Kimche (Radak), the 12th century Provencal commentator, noted the symbolic nature of this imagery. He asserts that Ezekiel chose this image in order to teach that impurity is something remediable. The sins of the community of Israel need not cause a permanent alienation from God. The relationship between God and His people is rectifiable. God provided the ritual of the red heifer for purification from bodily impurity, but how were the people to return to a state of moral purity which would allow for their redemption? Ezekiel answers this question in the following words: “I [God] will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean. I will cleanse you from your uncleanness and from your idolatrous practices.” (verse 25)
Radak notes that this verse is also symbolic: “Just as immersion in a mikveh and the sprinkling of water bring about a state of purity, so too, spiritual purity will be brought about by atonement.” (adapted translation) The remedy for moral/spiritual impurity is also to be found in God. God will provide us with the tools to create ourselves anew without the spiritual morass of the past which keeps us from making changes in our lives. Ezekiel describes this divine gift with these words: ”And I [God] will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you. I will remove the heart of stone from you and give you a heart of flesh and I will put My spirit into you. In this way I will cause you to follow my laws and faithfully observe my rules” (verses 26-7) This divine gift will allow for our homecoming both in a spiritual and in a physical sense as Ezekiel notes in the next verse : “Then you shall dwell in the land of your fathers, and you shall be My people and I shall be your God” (verse 28).
The season of Pesach is not just a time for the recollection of past redemption. It is also the time to gear up for our present redemption both as individuals and as a nation. Ezekiel informs us that God grants us the ability to renew ourselves and come home as individuals seeking God and a people yearning for their homeland.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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