Shabbat Greetings

This week we read not only the Torah portion Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) – God continues to describe the different laws of sacrifices. A distinction is made between sin offerings, burnt offerings, and peace offerings, with each following its own process. God then commands the priests to make another offering that ordains themselves in their positions – but also we have a special concluding Torah reading and haftarah (additional reading from the prophetic books), which, coincidentally, continue the bovine theme in the Torah readings with a description of the “Red Heifer” needed for ritual purity. The haftarah, from the book of Ezekiel, takes the theme of ritual purity in a new direction, making a condition of the body a metaphor for the state of the soul:

“The word of Adonai came to me: ‘O mortal, when the House of Israel dwelt on their own soil, they defiled it with their ways and their deeds; their ways were in My sight like the uncleanness of a menstruous woman.’ ” (Ezekiel 36:16-17)

Let’s review for a moment: in Biblical times, our ancestors had a strong concept of ritual purity-” taharah,” or the state of being “tahor – pure”- and its opposite, ritual impurity, or “tumah,” or the state of being “tameh – impure.” The reason I say “ritual” impurity is that one who was in this state could not enter certain areas designated for holiness, or in extreme cases, even the camp of the Israelites. However, it wasn’t a moral failing to be tameh; you got that way from touching a dead body, or an unclean animal, or from having certain kinds of bodily emissions, among other examples.

Conversely, one got to be “tahor” through a process of waiting and immersion in water, or sometimes bringing an offering. The ritual of the Red Heifer (cf. Numbers 19) created a way for those who are tameh to become tahor again – a subject to revisit another time.

Now, moving along to the haftarah, we see that the prophet makes a shift in meanings: just as (in the Biblical purity system) a woman who is tameh would not be allowed to enter certain areas, the people Israel, through their moral failings, are no longer worthy to inherit the Land of Israel. Let me be clear here: by no means do I endorse the idea that a woman’s menstrual cycle is “defiling;” rather, I’m saying that one must understand the background of the text in order to understand the larger message of the prophet, which is that despite the people’s moral failings, they can have a “new heart” and a new spirit. (Cf. verse 26).

We read the text of the Red Heifer on Shabbat Parah – a few weeks before Passover – as a reminder of the ancient system of tumah and taharah, which was an  important element of Passover observance, since nobody in a state of ritual impurity  could eat the Pesach offering. The haftarah takes this idea and moves it into the realm of moral preparation for the holiday: just as someone in Biblical times could be rendered clean after impurity, so too could those who had transgressed or strayed be brought close to the Holy One and renewed in spirit. 

The point of the haftarah is not that the people are defiled: it’s that they can, and will, be renewed, and brought home from exile. Exile, in turn, is also not limited to where the body resides; it also describes the state of our souls, when we feel far from “home” and alienated from our Source of Being. This is the key idea: there is no point from which we cannot return to our Source, and when we remember that, hope is never lost.