Community Torah Corner, March 10, 2023

Rabbi Rachel Marder
Congregation Beth El
South Orange, NJ
Parashat Ki Tisa

Rav Yehuda, a third century sage in Babylonia, famously teaches that, “When the month of Adar begins, one increases rejoicing” (Taanit 29a). This week, we reached the pinnacle of our joy in Adar as we celebrated Purim. As soon as we come down from the festivities, our attention immediately turns to preparing for the arrival of the month of Nisan and the holiday of Passover, which believe it or not, begins in just under a month.

Already this Shabbat we are starting to prepare for Passover. We call this coming Shabbat, Shabbat Parah, the Sabbath of the Red Heifer, named for the special maftir reading from Numbers 19. The section deals with God’s command that anyone who has come into contact with a corpse, be ritually purified through a red heifer whose ashes were combined with water. This section came as a public reminder in ancient days that one had to be in a state of ritual purity to offer and eat from the Passover sacrifice at the Temple. Anyone who had become ritually impure could purify themselves before making their Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. This Shabbat, ahead of Rosh Hodesh Nisan, was the week to offer this reminder. We live in a time when we are not making pilgrimages to Jerusalem for the festivals, nor are we offering sacrifices. What meaning could Shabbat Parah hold for us today?

Like our ancestors before us, as we enter the month of Nisan we may be feeling excited for spring and the season of our freedom, but also anxious as we anticipate the cleaning that awaits us and ridding our homes of hametz. It’s important to note that the red heifer ritual is not about purifying anything external to us; it’s about readying ourselves. Preparing for Passover is not only about kashering our kitchens; it’s about spiritually preparing ourselves to re-experience redemption on Seder night. May we read this maftir as a call now to begin reflecting on the Egypt or the narrowness we are experiencing. May we think of those around us who are enslaved or otherwise trapped. May we consider what we need to break free from our Egypt and how to support others yearning to breathe free so that when we reach Passover, we can experience the crossing of the shores of the sea together. The red heifer ritual was about purifying ourselves from contact with the dead in order to rejoin the living. So may we look forward to this season of rebirth and renewal, and take the time we need to receive it.