Making sense of the sedra: Parah

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Making sense of the sedra: Parah

The olive leaf of hope and promise

This week we read an extra portion known as parshat Parah – a segment from the Torah all about the red heifer. It is usually read the shabbat before parshat Hachodesh, which we read to herald the month of Nissan and the festival of Pesach.

The red heifer is a strange and anomalous mitzvah. A completely perfect red cow that has never been used for work or any other purpose is taken outside of the camp and is completely burnt. Its ashes are then mixed with water to enable those who have been rendered tameh (impure) through touching a dead body to become tahor (pure). The cohen (priest) who must be tahor to sprinkle the mixture paradoxically becomes tameh (impure) through performing this ritual.

During times when the Jewish people could bring a korban pesach, they would have to do so in a state of being tahor. For those who had become tameh this would be the right time of year for this mitzvah to be performed, to enable them to bring a korban pesach a few weeks later, thus we remember this through reading this portion.

The Torah terms this whole mitzvah a chok, traditionally understood to mean a mitzvah that defies rational explanation, but it does not stop us from trying to draw meaning from this ritual. Most simply, coming face-to-face with death can be both deeply sad and inspiring at the same time. Mourning the loss of someone who will no longer be an active part of our lives can be deeply upsetting and cause great despair. Conversely, people surviving near-death experiences or witnessing a loss that could have been them, find they are able to refocus and more sharply prioritise what is truly important. Indeed, the Talmud (Brachot 10a) teaches that King David “looked upon his day of death and broke into song”. It takes the greatness of a King David to be able to look at his own mortality and celebrate the godliness in everything including death.

We can even draw meaning from the location where the parah adumah was burnt. During Temple times it was taken outside of Jerusalem, to the Mount of Olives. The midrash in Bereishit Rabbah teaches that when Noach sent out the dove to bring back signs of life after the flood, the olive branch came from the Mount of Olives. Rav Silverberg points out that this teaches the person who has had an encounter with death that even in the darkest moments, “there is an ‘olive leaf’ of hope and promise, which can and must inspire him to move onward with confidence and faith”.

As this awful post-October 7 reality continues, with so many lives lost and hostages still to be recovered, and now witnessing the nations of the world turning their back on Israel even more, this message we can take from the parah adumah is more relevant than ever. Honouring the lives of those who have been lost by reflecting on their legacy can help us find meaning, while  recognising and respecting the efforts of everyone can hopefully enable us to draw strength from each other.








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