Shabbat Parah: Physical transformation for the physical Rosh Hashanah

This week we will read a special maftir for Shabbat Parah, found in Parashat Chukkat, a commemoration of the purification rite administered by the Kohanim, the priests of the holy temple, to anyone who wants to become pure in order to bring sacrifices to the Temple.

Bamidbar 19:2 and 13

זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה הֹי לֵאמֹר דַּבֵּר | אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין בָּהּ מוּם אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָלָה עָלֶיהָ עֹל

כָּל הַנֹּגֵעַ בְּמֵת בְּנֶפֶשׁ הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָמוּת וְלֹא יִתְחַטָּא אֶת מִשְׁכַּן הֹי טִמֵּא וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל כִּי מֵי נִדָּה לֹא זֹרַק עָלָיו טָמֵא יִהְיֶה עוֹד טֻמְאָתוֹ בו


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.

Whoever touches the corpse of a human soul which dies, and he does not cleanse himself, he has defiled the Mishkan of the Lord, and that soul shall be cut off from Israel. For the sprinkling water was not sprinkled on him, so he remains unclean, and his uncleanness remains upon him.

Our sages tell us that the reason for this commemoration is based around the annual rite of purifying oneself in order to bring the paschal offering. That prior to Passover, we should remember the various instructions given to us, so that one day hopefully in the near future we will be able to undergo the same process and in order to observe the upcoming festival in its entirety.

I would like to provide an alternative answer as to why we read this maftir the week before the month of Nissan begins.

The Gemorah in Masechet Rosh Hashanah tells us that there are four roshei shanah, four new years that the Jewish people observe. The two main ones are the first of Tishrei, and the first of Nissan.

Tishrei is the spiritual head of the year, a time when line up in front of our maker, and we are judged for our year that has past, and our year that is coming.

Nissan is the physical head of the year, the time in which we begin the cyclic calendar of the pilgrimage festivals, the harvest season, we wake up from our winter slumber and begin a fresh with the seasons and the warmth.

Every year when Elul comes along we begin a spiritual transformation, readying ourselves for the Yom HaDin, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. We sound the shofar, we make amends with our peers, and we take upon ourselves the selichot teffilot in order to make amends with God.

As Nissan approaches we need to begin a physical transformation. This was done by undergoing a physical rite to prepare for the Passover service, and we commemorate this by reading our maftir. But it is important to realize that this is not enough. Over the next several weeks we will begin cleaning our house, purging the chametz from within our midst. Chametz according to the Rambam is the symbolic manifestation of sin and idolatry.

Where in Elul we purge the spiritual sins for the spiritual head of the year, as Nissan approaches and we physically cleanse ourselves so we can truly embrace the physical head.

About the Author
Originally from Auckland New Zealand, much of Alon's time over the past ten years has been for the growth and development of community. Alon has an MA in Sociology from the University of Auckland, and is a graduate of Yeshiva University's Semicha program. He is the Rabbi of the ACT Jewish Community in Canberra, Australia. Alon also holds a degree in Medieval Jewish History.
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