While the first of the month of Nissan may seem like the official kickoff for the Passover season, preparations begin even earlier. The Shabbat before the first of Nissan is called Parshat Hachodesh—named for the launching of the month of Nissan—and the Shabbat before that is called Parshat Parah—named after the Parah Adumah, the red heifer prescribed in the Torah as the recipe for ritual purity and used by anyone made impure by the presence of a dead body, in anticipation of Passover.
As Passover drew near, anyone that experienced the most intense form of impurity—proximity with a dead body—would have to purify themselves at the Temple in Jerusalem, with fresh wanted mixed with the ashes of the red heifer. To remember these events which took place around this time of the year, Jews around the world read on this week of the year the following exact description of ritual, as told in the book of Bamidbar:
“This is the statute of the Torah which the Lord commanded, saying, Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid…. The cow shall then be burned in his presence; its hide, its flesh, its blood, with its dung he shall burn it…. The kohen shall take a piece of cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson wool, and cast them into the burning of the cow…They shall take for that unclean person from the ashes of the burnt purification offering, and it shall be placed in a vessel [filled] with spring water.” (Bamidbar chapter 20)
This use of the red heifer, which is considered the quintessential mystical and esoteric mitzvah whose reason is hidden from us, is what purifies the impure. Of all the different things done in preparation for Passover, why is this aspect of preparation given such an emphasis? Why do we dedicate an entire Shabbat to this one detail, so much so that Rabbi Yosef Karo in his magnum opus Beit Yosef and Shulchan Aruch ruled that reading Parshat Parah on this Shabbat is a Torah based obligation—a scriptural mandate. Why is it so important to this time of the year?
While many commentaries and scholars— all the way back to King Solomon himself—struggle with the question of why it is that the red heifer would become the symbol of purity and renewal. Yet there is another aspect of purity that explains why we read Parshat Parah now and why it is this ritual that purifies the impure—an answer that can be found on the planet of Mars.
With increasing missions successful landing on Mars and sending images, videos, and sound from Mars it because clear: mars is a beautiful place. The various NASA rovers send beautiful images of mountains, cliffs, valleys, sand dunes, rocks— images that look like they may have been taken in Nevada or Arizona. The beauty, serenity, and majesty of the once unreachable planet have captured humanity’s mind and imagination. Many ambitiously— or wishfully— talk of the possibility of humans inhabiting Mars. Yet the absence of one thing remains the biggest obstacle to human life on Mars—water.
Humans cannot survive without water. As Mars has even less water than the driest desert on earth it is impossible to sustain human life. Where there is water, there is life. The Torah refers to the water to be sprinkled with the ashes of the red heifer as “Mayim Chaim”, translated as “spring water”, but also meaning living water. Water symbolizes life and renewal. Thus, when someone comes into close proximity or contact with the ultimate source of impurity—death—they must purify themselves with a water from a fresh flowing spring.
The centrality of water to the theme of life in purity is emphasized all the more powerfully in the Haftorah for Parshat Parah, echoing the famous words of the prophet Ezekiel (chapter 36):
“I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the countries, and I will bring you to your land. And I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be clean; from all your impurities and from all your abominations will I cleanse you.”
Rashi in his commentary to Ezikiel notes that the water referred to here is the same water mentioned in the reading of the Parah Adumah saying:
“I will grant you atonement and remove your uncleanliness by sprinkling purification water, which removes [even the highest degree of defilement,] the defilement caused by a corpse.”
Thus a central element of purification is that of the water, as it symbolizes rebirth, life, and renewal. The great Gerrer Rebbe, Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (Poland, 1847–1905) write in his magnum opus Sefat Emet that Shabbat Parah—each and every year—is a time for renewal and purity. The fact that the Jewish people have historically began purifying themselves and their households for Passover established this a time of spiritual opportunity and renewal.
While reading Parashat Parah in anticipation of Passover reminds us of the red heifer and purity, it also reminds us of the spring water—mayim chayim—used to purify the impure. This water symbolizes birth, renewal, and purity. It also symbolizes our anticipation of the ultimate redemption, a time when got “will sprinkle pure water” on us and purify us. May this season of renewal, life, and redemption bring the healing and renewal our world is so desperate for. Shabbat Shalom.