Los Angeles Jewish Home's Blog

Word of Torah - Shabbat Parah

"I thought I would attain wisdom, but it is distant from me" (Ecclesiastes 7:23).

This verse has traditionally been attributed to King Solomon.  Yet, even King Solomon, renowned for his great wisdom, failed to understand it.  What is the “it?”  “It” is the law of the red heifer that is read this Shabbat, March 26, 2011.

This is the third of four special Sabbaths leading up to Passover every year.  They are called Shekalim, Zachor, Parah and Ha’chodesh, and each, in its own way, helps us to prepare ourselves for the upcoming holiday.

Shekalim is the call to donate money so that the poor might have wine, matzah and other necessities for Pesach (Passover).

Zachor comes on the Sabbath before Purim, so that we might remember that when Purim comes we are always one month away from Passover, even in a leap year.

Parah is the story/law of the “red heifer” whose ashes are mysteriously used to purify those who became spiritually “impure” from contact with the dead.  In ancient times one who was in this state of impurity could not participate in the Passover ritual.

Ha’chodesh Is the fourth of the pre-Passover Sabbaths, and comes on the Saturday on which the new month of Nissan is announced in the synagogue.  This announcement is a reminder that the holiday is about two weeks away.  The scriptural reading of the day is, likewise, a reminder of the basic Passover requirements for which we must prepare.

If you didn’t already know, now it’s easy to see why many consider Passover to be the most important of Jewish holidays.  It represents the creation of the Jewish nation and a yearly re-establishment of the initial covenant between G-d and Israel.  Traditionally, every Jew is encouraged participate in this yearly ritual. The Bible even provides a second opportunity for those who miss it.

What King Solomon failed to understand (and the rabbis as well) is the mystery of how the ashes sprinkled with water on the impure individual allows him to achieve wholeness, while at the same time the one who performs the sprinkling becomes impure.  Indeed, life and death are beyond understanding and pure logic.  True purity in this world is the ability to draw near to G-d and fulfill His will.  Death on the other hand, can take us away from the world.

Those of us who must suffer the death of loved ones are in danger of a kind of impurity of spirit that threatens our faith in life in this world. It is often difficult to go on, to find meaning in life.  Death is an example of a phenomenon in the world that is diametrically opposed to the genuine intention of G-d, who creates life, so that we may live.

On this Passover may we once again find the inspiration to enter into relationship with G-d and live.

Rabbi Sheldon PennesRabbi Sheldon Pennes is the Jack H. Skirball Director of Spiritual Life at the Los Angeles Jewish Home, where he oversees the many services and activities that educate, illuminate, and enrich the spiritual life and needs of those living in, or served by, the Home.

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