‘Parah Adumah’: Existential consequence or irrelevant anachronism?

By Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose

This coming Shabbat, Jews the world over will be blessed with a uniquely “thick” liturgical experience. In addition to a lengthy Torah reading spanning the two concluding sections of Sefer Shemot (Exodus) — the double portion of VaYakhel and Phekudei; the special Maftir for Shabbat Parah (describing the complex purification ritual of the Red Heifer) from Sefer Bamidbar (Numbers); the inspiring Haftarah (with its profound promise of the possibility of “a new heart and new spirit”) from the prophetic Book of Ezekiel – we will also announce publicly the arrival of Rosh Chodesh, the new Hebrew month of Nisan, which will begin next week. That reminds us that Pesach, the annual season of our deliverance, is once again upon us. 

If you are a person who appreciates the majesty and nuance of Jewish worship — and lots of it — this is a Shabbos not to be missed! 

My teacher, mentor and dear friend Rabbi Bernard Lipnick (z”l) used to refer to such filled-to-overflowing religious occasions as “moments when we truly understand the term ‘an embarrassment of riches.’ ”  For it is at times such at this Shabbos when we can more easily apprehend not only how vast, deep, intricate and profound our tradition is, but also how much insight and clarity our heritage can provide when we work to understand its genius. 

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As a Darshan or Parshan (preacher or commentator of the Torah), the multiplicity of topics upon which to reflect produces its own set of challenges and angst. What demands immediate elucidation, and what can wait for a future moment? Which themes are crucial for postmoderns living in 2015 to confront, and which might be better left for another opportunity or venue? 

The answers, of course, are not simple. However, at least for me, the issue of extracting existential consequence from what might appear as irrelevant anachronism is of paramount importance. And the ancient ritual of the Parah Adumah (the Red Heifer) serves as a perfect case in point for our consideration. 

The Red Heifer purification ritual is multifaceted. However, for the sake of this brief commentary, I want to focus on only three seemingly inconsequential elements, which might help us begin to appreciate the power and poignancy of this rite.

• Why was the heifer required to be red? Because this particularly vivid color symbolizes energy, vitality, vigor and power.

• Why must the heifer “never have been yoked”? The animal utilized in the sacrifice must not have been domesticated; it needed to be “free,” “wild,” “unfettered” and “unbridled.” 

• Why does this sacrifice – unlike others – demand that the entire animal be utterly consumed by fire and that all that remains are its ashes?

It seems to me that our Torah – in describing this one rather opaque practice – is teaching a remarkably important lesson about the nature of human existence. All earthly reality, regardless of how powerful, independent and alive it may be, will ultimately be reduced to mere dust. However, that very dust, if consciously consecrated and thoughtfully made sacred, has the power to not only purify, it also possesses the power to heal, transform and uplift.  

From the God’s-eye view, our lives are short; we come and go in the blink of an eye. Yet, if we live our lives in ways that are meaningful and add value to the existence of those around us – our families, communities and world – even when we have been reduced to desiccated ash, our legacies with surely help refresh, renew, revivify and purify life for those who will follow.

Our very lives move from irrelevant anachronism to existential consequence. 

May this liturgically replete Shabbat – accompanied by a fresh rereading of the often underappreciated ritual of the Red Heifer – help us move ever closer to this lofty goal.

Rabbi Carnie Shalom Rose serves as the Rabbi Bernard Lipnick Senior Rabbinic Chair of Congregation B’nai Amoona.