Posted on March 26, 2022
The Red Heifer, Contact with Death, and Change
Tomorrow is Shabbat Parah and we will take two torahs out of the ark. From the first we will read (the final third of) parashat shemini, about which animals are permitted and which are prohibited for eating. From the second we will read from parashat hukkat (Num. 19:1-22) about the red heifer, the parah adumah. In the days of the Temple, the ashes of a red heifer were used to ritually purify those who had ritual contamination from contact with a corpse. This passage is read before Passover because people needed to be in a state of ritual purity in order to eat of the Passover sacrifice.
Two thousand years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the idea of ritual purity or impurity is somewhat alien to us. We know that we are all in a perpetual state of ritual impurity and we do not care that much. We also know that coming into contact with the deceased is not in and of itself a bad thing, (nor is ritual impurity for that matter). Those who do taharah, who prepare a body for burial, are doing an important and holy mitzvah. Doctors and nurses do vital work — and sometimes come into contact with deceased patients.
Reading this passage reminds us that ritual impurity or no ritual impurity, coming into contact with a dead body can never be taken lightly. This week, when we read about the parah adumah, the red heifer, let us think about the subtle and not so subtle ways that coming into contact with death changes us. People on the hevre kadishah committee that take care of our dead describe it as a holy experience, an encounter of the sacred. They are changed from doing the mitzvah of caring for the dead.
This week our congregation has been involved in the mitzvah of caring for the mourners, and that too is an encounter with death. That too leaves us each a little different from before.
It has been a long time since Jews have needed to be in a state of ritual purity to eat of the Passover sacrifice. But it has been a long year, a long few years, years of pandemic, years of aging, and now there is a war in Eastern Europe. We are not the same as we were in Passovers past. There will be people absent from our tables.
And at the same time, many of us will be gathering in larger crowds that we have in the past two years. Maybe we will be together again with family and friends the way we used to be. When we gather at seder in three weeks, let us think about how we are different, how we are changed, what a ritual of a red heifer might do for us.