Parshat Ki Tissa
March 10, 2007
Parshat Parah, which is read as the maftir Torah reading this Shabbat, is the third of the four special Shabbat Torah readings before Pesah. Its reading was meant to serve as a reminder of the need to attain a state of ritual purity in order to eat of the Pesah sacrifice on the evening of the festival. Ritual impurity, contracted through contact with a dead body, could only be remedied by being sprinkled by water mixed with ashes from the burning of a red heifer (parah adumah). This special Torah reading recounts the details of this ritual.
In the special haftarah for this Shabbat, Ezekiel portrays Israel\’s exile from its homeland as the result of its disloyalty to God and its rampant immorality. God will ultimately redeem His people for His own sake, bringing them back to their homeland. The process of purifying the people for their return home is described in these words: \”I will sprinkle purifying water upon you and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes.\” (36:25) The Targum Yonathan recognized that Ezekiel\’s message was meant symbolically: \”I (God) will forgive your sins like one purifies with the water for sprinkling together with the ashes of the heifer of atonement and you will be purified from your impurities and from all your idols I will purify you.\” In addition this translation [interpretation] links this verse to the rite of the ashes of the red heifer.
This verse also plays an interesting role in the interpretation of a discussion in the Talmud: \”Our rabbis taught: The Alexandrians asked twelve questions of Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah: Three were of a scientific nature, three were matters of aggadah, three were matters of nonsense, and three were matters of conduct…\’Three were matters of nonsense\’:… Does the son of the Shunamite, [whom the prophet Elisha miraculously] restored to life (See 2 Kings 4:35), convey ritual impurity. He answered: A corpse conveys impurity but no live person conveys impurity. Will the dead in the hereafter require to be sprinkled upon [with water with ashes of the red heifer] on the third and the seventh day or will they not? He replied: When they are resurrected we will be wise to the matter. Others say: When our master Moses will come with them, [we will know]. (Adapted from Niddah 70b)
The Tosafot (Ibid.) ask why the Talmud did not ask about \”sprinkling\” for the Shunamite boy whom Elisha revived? It finds the answer in the verse from Ezekiel [which is in the future tense]: \’And you will sprinkle on them purifying waters\’. The question is therefore relevant for those who will be resurrected in the future but not for the Shunamite boy.
This unusual passage formed part of a debate in a modern teshuva regarding the question whether a cohen (priest) can have an organ transplant where the transplanted organ might be considered temporarily dead and consequently cause the cohen to become ritually impure. Rav Israel Meir Lau, the former Chief Askenazic Rabbi of Israel, cites in his discussion of the question the above Talmudic passage and the accompanying Tosafot as a possible proof that such a person is not to be considered as dead at all, like the Shunamite boy, since he does not require \”sprinkling\”, and consequently never acquires ritual impurity in the process once the transplant has been successful. This potentially serves as proof for Lau that a cohen might receive an organ transplant. (Yahel Yisrael 61)
What began as an illustration of God\’s promise to save his children from exile and to return them in the future both to their physical and spiritual home also turned out to help produce a religious and legal means to save a life. Such is the redemptive nature of God\’s words.
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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