Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36; Numbers 19:1-22: Parashat Hashavua for Shabbat Parah, March 30, 2024

What does it mean to be pure? Is it a spiritual state, an emotional state, a moral condition, or all of the above? Is being pure the same as being good? Does it matter in our lives or is it a meaningless antiquated concept? 

This Shabbat is called Shabbat Parah, one of the five special Shabbatot leading up to Pesach and is based on the special Maftir reading from the Book of Numbers describing the Ritual of the Red Heifer, the Parah Adumuah. ‘This is the ritual law that יהוה has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.’ (Numbers 19:2) The cow is sacrificed, burned, and its ashes are mixed with water to purify anyone who comes in contact with a corpse. 

Such contact led to ritual impurity which disqualified anyone from bringing a sacrifice to the Temple, thus in ancient times the Israelites were reminded to purify themselves before the Pesach holiday so they could make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Once the Temple was destroyed the ritual was no longer necessary, yet our Sages maintained Shabbat Parah and repurposed its meaning to remind us to purify our homes of chametz before the Pesach holiday. 

Yet, there is a deeper meaning still. Freedom of moral choice is the foundation of Jewish ethics. That choice is often challenged by our physicality and our mortality, our fear of death. So, often we make the wrong moral choice because of our physical desires, whether it’s eating excessively or drinking too much, or worrying about our own comfort and security more than we need to and ignoring the needs of others who have less than we do. 

Shabbat Parah, with its call for ritual purity, reminds us to take the moral high ground and do the right thing.

It’s not just about cleaning our homes of chametz; it’s about clearing our souls of selfishness.