Parashat Shemini–Shabbat Parah

Shabbat Parah — Holy cow!!

This Shabbat is one of the four specially designated Shabbatot leading up to Passover. They are all exemplified by a special Torah reading that gets added to the reading for the particular Shabbat, and they all have special haftarot — readings from the prophetic books. This week is the strangest of all, Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the red heifer. Or, as one of my teachers called it, “Holy Cow Shabbat!” We will read the standard Torah reading for the week, in this case the reading in the book of Leviticus called Shemini, and then we will read from the book of Numbers, the section that outlines the ritual of choosing, slaughtering, and burning a pure red heifer, one that has never worn a yoke on its neck.

The convoluted ritual of the sacrifice of this cow is part of the process of purification leading up to Passover, to redemption. It is a process that renders the one who handles the cow and its ashes ritually impure at the same time as it purifies those who are sprinkled with water and ash. So the ash has a kind of double valence: it both purifies and contaminates.

I can’t help but think of the other ritual that is performed at this time of year; the ritual of pre-Passover cleaning. On the one hand, the idea is to rid the house of any speck of hametz — leavening. So, to that end, millions of women (let’s face it, mostly women) will haul appliances away from walls, will climb step ladders to reach into cabinets that should probably be left untouched, will slosh soapy water all over the kitchen and will sweep, mop, vacuum and dust. And at the end of that impossible task they — we — will be exhausted and filthy. Then we shower. Then we clean the bathroom. Pure/Impure. It’s part of a continuum. Nothing stays in a state of ritual purity for more than an instant. In fact, in the Mishnah in the section that deals with preparations for Passover, there is a question about the status of a house into which a mouse has brought a crumb of leavened bread. Do you have to start the whole process all over again? Is your house contaminated? And the answer: Im keyn, eyn l’davar sof! If so, there’s no end to the matter.

Really, enough is enough. The Torah reading about the red heifer comes to remind us that we must make a real effort to eliminate pride, sin and error from our lives. But then reality smacks us upside the head and reminds us that there is no such thing as perfection, no possibility of true purity. Im keyn, eyn l’davar sof! What’s to be done?

As if to give us some hope, the haftarah for the day speaks to us of a purity of the spirit. The prophet Ezekiel reminds us that even though the people of Israel have defamed and contaminated even God’s holy name, still there is the possibility of purification and redemption.

I will sprinkle pure water on you, and you shall become pure from all your contaminations…And I will give you a new heart and a new spirit. I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My spirit into you. (Ezekiel 36:25-27)

For us, this Shabbat reminds us to purge our homes of hametz and to purge our hearts of pride, and included in that is the prideful imagining that there is a completely clean house or a completely righteous person. May the preparations that begin this period be a source of joy, not despair.


Cantor Marcia Lane is the Director of Education and Engagement at the United Jewish Federation of Greater Stamford, Darien, and New Canaan.