Parshat Parah (5771)

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This week we read a special maftir and haftarah – known as Parshat Parah – which deals with the most puzzling and enigmatic of all the mitzvot … the mitzva of the Red Heifer. This is a mitzva so difficult to understand that even the wisest of men, the great King Solomon himself, was unable to understand its meaning.

The ritual is as follows: The ashes of an unblemished red heifer (along with the ashes of cedarwood, hyssop and crimson thread) are mixed with water and sprinkled on an impure person to purify them. This strange mixture has the mysterious ability to remove very strong spiritual impurity – the impurity caused by coming into contact with the dead.

How and why this works is not understood – it is a statute given to us without the explanation. We do it (in Temple times) simply because G-d commanded us to do so, not because we understand. There are many similar statutes, given without their explanation – one example is the laws of keeping kosher. Yes, keeping kosher might have additional health benefits, as science is slowly discovering, but the reason for keeping kosher was never revealed to us by G-d.

The Talmud relates an interesting story in relation to the Red Heifer. The Kohen Gadol, the High Priest serving in the Beit Hamikdash had to wear a breastplate called a Choshen, which had twelve precious stones on the front, one representing each Tribe of Israel. It happened once that the stone for the tribe of Benjamin fell out and they needed a replacement, so the sages made contact with a gentile gem dealer by the name of  Damah. They met up with him and struck a price of 100 dinar, however when Damah went to retrieve the stone he had a “minor” problem … his father had fallen asleep and had the key with him.

Not wanting to wake his father Damah delays the deal, and the Sages who think he is unhappy with the price begin to raise their offer, again and again until they reach 1000 dinar – ten times the original offer he had agreed to. At this point Damah’s father wakes, he retrieves the key, brings them the precious stone, and refuses to accept any more than the original 100 dinar he had agreed to.

The Sages press him to accept, but when he refuses, stating that he did not want to “sell” his father’s honour, they bless him and leave. That night, relates the Talmud, an extremely valuable Red Heifer was born to Damah, which the sages bought from him for a huge sum of money. This was his reward from Heaven for the great respect he showed his father.

The halacha goes into great detail about the lengths we must go to in the honour of our parents. Even in the extreme case where one’s parents abuse and embarrass him or her in public, we must remain silent and respectful at all times. And the reward for honouring our parents, as we know, is arichut yamim – long life.

But what of those whose parents have passed away, and moved on into the next world, how do we honour them? We honour them by following the path they laid down for us over the years of our upbringing, and by continuing to observe the traditions and mitzvot that were precious to them. We honour them by attending shul on their yahrzeit and by saying the kaddish, and we honour them by passing on the traditions that were so dear to them, to our children and grandchildren in turn.

The Torah teaches that the parent-child connection is never severed, and the actions we do in this world can have a hugely positive effect on those in the next. So when we do a mitzva, study a few words of  Torah, or come to shul to daven, even though we might not understand the words, or even the reason for what we do, we can feel assured that up in Heaven where they do have that clarity, there is great joy and nachas.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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