WWOT – Weekly Words of Torah: Parashat Shemini (Shabbat Parah)

To inspire, guide, engage, enrich, and empower Conservative Jewish Women
By Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields, Executive Director, Women’s League For Conservative Judaism

Our Torah reading this Shabbat is Parashat Shemini, and it is one of the special Shabbatot before Passover, called Shabbat Parah. The maftir reading for Shabbat Parah, taken from the book of Numbers 19:1-22, deals with the red heifer whose ashes were combined with water to ritually purify anyone who had been in contact with a dead person. Because only people who were pure could eat from the Passover sacrifice, a public announcement right before the month of Nisan reminded anyone who had become impure to purify themselves before making the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In the haftarah for Parashat Parah, taken from the book of Ezekiel, the prophet Ezekiel reprimands the people for defiling the House of Israel, and taking God’s name in vain. Their disrespect for God caused their exile and dispersion. The haftarah also deals with issues of being cleansed from contamination, but the impurity, in this case, symbolizes human sinfulness. But, like physical impurity, sins can be overcome. As God states in Ezekiel 36:25-26: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean: I will cleanse you from all your uncleanness and from all your fetishes [idolatrous practices]. And I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit into you.” This renewal of self and nation reflects Passover’s theme of redemption. Just as the maftir aliyah for Parashat Parah presents an ancient ritual of purification for those who have come in contact with the dead, the haftarah explains how Israel will be purified by God and, in fact, brought back to life with a new heart and a new spirit.

In our day, we do not have red heifers, and we do not have such purification rituals, hence, how can this be relevant for us? A modern way of looking at this is to see this as a period of teshuvah, repentance, similar to the month of Elul before Rosh Hashanah. The ritual surrounding the red heifer was done to purify a person and cleanse them from sin. Nowadays, we do not have such rituals, but we can do that orally. Let us think, is there someone we have wronged? And how can we make it up to them? We do not have to wait until Elul to do this. Before Passover is also an opportunity to do this – as exemplified by this ritual taught in the reading for Shabbat Parah. We do not always immediately realize it, but, sometimes, people distance themselves from synagogues or organizations, because of a comment made to them, or a slight they have perceived, even if not intended. Is there someone you have not seen lately at synagogue, or your Sisterhood? Maybe we have said something not intended, but perceived in a certain way. Before Passover is a time to cleanse ourselves, and to approach those we may have slighted and say, “I am sorry. Please come back. We miss you at our Sisterhood events.” And, even if we do not know if someone has been slighted, let us all reach out and tell someone, “I miss you. Come to a Sisterhood event with me!”

Weekly Words of Torah is a brief paragraph prepared weekly by our new Executive Director, Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields, presented in our “This Week @ Women’s League.” WWOT will provide meaningful thoughts related to the Weekly Torah Portion, an event on the Calendar, a Prayer, or something of Jewish interest, to inspire, guide, engage, enrich, and empower Conservative Jewish Women. If you have any particular interest in future topics, or want to send Rabbi Wolintz-Fields an email, you can contact her at ewolintz-fields@wlcj.org. Read previous Weekly Words of Torah here.