The Parah-mount Importance of Purification and Unity

My father is usually upbeat when I speak with him on the telephone, but this week he was sad. His chavruta of many years, Rav Aaron Feder, passed away.

I told my father that I would write down some Torah thoughts to honor the memory of his havruta, Rav Aaron, may his memory be blessed.

One of the gemaras my father completed with his chavruta was Tractate Megillah.

In the final chapter of Tractate Megillah, the Mishna states that in the weeks leading up to Pesach, we read four parshiot: Shekalim, Zakhor, Parah, and Hachodesh.

Shekalim reminds of the mitzvah on all of Israel to donate a half-shekel coin to the Temple service by Nissan. Zakhor reminds us to remember Amalek. Amalek attacked the weakest members of the Jewish people in the desert, so, opposite from their actions, we must protect the fragile and needy as we celebrate our holidays.  The reading of Zakhor is placed next to Purim when we celebrate how we defeated Haman/Amalek.

Parah is a commemoration of the ritual of purification through use of the ashes of the red heifer.  This was performed before the inauguration of the tabernacle in Nissan, and close to the holiday of Pesach, so that the Jewish people would be purified before they  brought the Paschal offering.

Hachodesh is read next to Rosh Chodesh Nissan to focus our attention on the sanctification of the new month of Nissan.

There is a widespread practice to announce that the reading of Zakhor is a biblical commandment. But when I was growing up, my father told me that there are also sources that say that the reading of Parah is likewise a biblical commandment. I recently looked at these sources from Tractates Megillah and Berachot that say that also the reading of Parshat Parah is also a biblical obligation. (See Beit Yossef OC 685, SA 685:7, Aruch Hashulkhan 685:7, and Meg  17b.)

This was odd and mysterious to me. We are familiar with the practice of all the Jewish people realizing the significance of Amalek, that we have to protect ourselves and fight our enemies, but the idea of a mandate to listen to a reading of Parah, a purification ritual with ashes from a cow, is hard to fathom.

Let us consider this concept more carefully so as to realize that Parah also has great meaning, especially at this time of year.  The purification ritual in the past allowed the Jewish people to join together in a ritually pure state before Passover, so that they could all participate in the celebration of the Passover holiday together.  But there is another aspect to Parah as well, and that is remembering our redemption from sin. The Torah states (Deut. 9:7)    זכר אל תשכח את אשר הקצפת את ד’ א-ך במדבר .

“Remember and don’t forget how you angered God in the desert.”  The Parah reading is a reminder of how we are purified, after the sin of angering God.  There are thus two aspects of the purification ritual of the red heifer.  First, it makes the people holy so that we can approach the Temple and eat the Paschal offering; Second, there is an additional purification, wherein the parah purifies the people from the great sin of the golden calf.   As it is taught (Midrash Tanchuma), in the same way a mother cleans up for her child, the mother cow comes along and redeems the sin of the golden calf.

In past generations, the Jewish people understood their troubles as God’s direct punishment for sin, and for the greatest sin of all, the golden calf.  We find, for example, in the Crusader chronicle of Solomon bar Simson the belief that God allowed for Jewish suffering in the First Crusade because of unrequited sin of the golden calf.  The golden calf was the symbol of sin while the Parah was the expression of purification allowing the people to draw close to God through a complex ritual with the ashes of the red heifer that allowed them to overcome defilement and sin.

Today, we don’t live in an age where it is customary to talk of God punishing us on account of our sins.  Yet, the Parah ritual and its reading before Passover should still retain its incredible meaning.  Even though we may not speak in the language of sin, we do attribute wrongdoing to many groups of people even in our own Jewish nation.

For example, one group of Jews on the left blames the Jews on the right for the sins of Trump; while another group on the right may blame the Jews on the left for sins of the BDS movement.  One group says the Jews have wronged the Palestinians, while the other says the leftists have forfeited our rights to the holy land and have sold us out to Hezbollah and Iran.

Now as Passover approaches, it may happen that you may have people at your seder table who you disagree with on major issues.  Or maybe there are smaller issues that may bother you about a friend or family member at the seder.  How can we happily sit down and share a meal with a person who is “guilty” of this thing or that thing?

Consider then the mysterious and awesome atonement power of the red heifer that allows for the purification of our people.  In the same way, that God forgives the sin of his people for their wrong through this process, our reading of Parah before Passover allows us to join in friendship and love to our people and share a Pesach with them even if we believe that they are in the wrong.  In this way, the reading of Parah is of incredible and long-lasting significance today.  It takes away our defilement so that we the Jewish people may join with one another and share the Paschal meal in peace and happiness.

My father’s friend and havruta was laid to rest on the Mt. of Olives.  The Mishna Middot and Parah tell us that the priest would perform the ritual of the red heifer on the Mt. of Olives while directing his gaze to the Temple.

My prayer then in listening to the reading of Parah this year imagines that gaze of the priest of ancient times.  May the reading of the Torah purify us all so that we can join together as one people now and for future generations.

A note in conclusion: I learned this section of tractate Megillah with my friends, Tali, David, Aryeh, Trevor, Moshe, Alex and Richard.  Rav Yona shared a chidushei Haritva with sources on Parshat Parah.

Shabbat Shalom! And may we all be blessed with a peaceful and joyous Seder.

About the Author
Rabbi Akiva Herzfeld works on English language projects at Ne’emaney Torah Va’Avoda. He is a co-parent of five rambunctious children, and lives in Modi'in.