March 22, 2003
Shabbat Parah is the third of the special Shabbatot which precede Pesach. In the special Torah reading for this Shabbat, we recount the mitzvah of the ashes of the “red heifer”. As part of their purification process, these ashes were mixed with water and sprinkled by the kohanim, in Temple times, on people who became ritually impure through contact with the dead. We read this section of the Torah before Pesach since under normal circumstances a person had to be ritually pure in order to partake in the Korban Pesach – the roasted lamb eaten as part of the Passover Seder. We learn from the connection between the Korban Pesach and the rite of the red heifer that there is an intimate connection between ritual purity and redemption.
In the past it was possible through ritual to enact this special connection and relive each year the redemption from Egypt in a pure state. The destruction of the Temple and the exile precluded the performance of this religiously significant ritual. The Jewish people in exile were forever to be separated by this tragic situation both from a state of purity and as a consequence from the ability to achieve the redemptive state represented by the Passover. Ezekiel, who prophesied in Babylonia after the destruction of the First Temple, recognized this tragic situation. He felt that it was not only tragic for the Jews but for God as well since the state of the Jewish people was a sign of God’s status in the world.
Purity, for Ezekiel, was not just a ritual matter. He saw it as a metaphor for the moral and religious state of his people in exile. There could be no “redemption” from this sorry condition without God’s help, for just as the Jews were incapable of redeeming themselves from the physical exile in Babylonia, so, too, were they incapable of gathering the strength of will to purify themselves morally and spiritually. This radically new idea, found for the first time in the prophecies of Ezekiel, made Israel’s redemption into God’s challenge. No longer would Israel’s redemption be linked with Israel’s prior actions. Instead, God would provide the “redemptive” spirit to his people and give them the strength to redeem themselves both spiritually and physically.
Rabbi Eliezer Kilar, the 8th century paytan (poet) who was recently rediscovered, said it this way incorporating the ideas of Ezekiel:
In the past our forefathers with the water of the red heifer became pure,
As a result of our sins all this ended and we became buried in impure lands,
But in the future God has promised to those who remain,
that He will again sprinkle on them the purifying waters.
Purifying waters God said He would sprinkle in holiness,
Purifying waters to the impure even though those who prepare them become impure,
They bring about rebirth,
And I will give your a new heart and a new spirit.
This new spirit will be placed in your midst,
The darkness of your stone heart will be removed from you,
The Pure One (God) said: “From your impurity I will purify you,
And I will put My spirit in you.
In you I will renew a pure heart and your uncircumcised heart I will distance from you,
Your heart’s redemption will be a sign of your communal redemption,
In the future God promises your return (to Israel) in trust and tranquillity,
And you will dwell in the land of your fathers.
(adapted translation from the Piyyutim of Eliezer berabi Kilar, edited by Shulamit Elitzur p. 284-5)