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Purity and Taint: Crossing the Line of Life and Death

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Spring in Eretz Israel

Of four special Shabbatot leading up to our celebration of Pesach, this coming Shabbat is the third. It is called Shabbat Parah, and is built around a ritual whose internal meaning seems quite remote for us. The “Ritual of the Red Heifer,” the parah adumah, is an extra reading in traditional practice, taken from the Book of Numbers, 19.1-22. If a person has come into contact with a dead body, he/she is believed to become contaminated. According to this ritual, a red heifer is slaughtered, its body and blood are burned in a fire with specific woods and plants, and then its ashes are mixed with water into a paste that is sprinkled on those who have been contaminated, thus purifying them. The Jewish Publication Society translates this as the “water of lustration.”

Okay, pretty gory, I admit; a ritual from a distant time, and puzzling in its real intent. The ancient world was filled with fears and rituals regarding purity and contamination, and how to regain the one, if exposed to and tainted by the other.

Certainly in the modern world we have learned a number of lessons about hygiene and physical cleanliness. One of the most elementary principles of cooking, for instance, is that when you prepare raw poultry to be cooked, before you touch anything else, wash your hands (!), and any other utensils that came into contact with the raw poultry. Otherwise, we’re almost begging for cross-contamination, and the potential for salmonella and all kinds of other horrors.

So we understand the principle of physical contamination. But there seemed to be an even deeper fear here in the case of the Red Heifer. Here, the cross between purity and contamination seemed to represent the more overwhelming fear of death, and crossing over that line, from which, of course, there was no return.

In our own time, we are familiar with various rituals which act out our need to make this separation between life and death. You may have noticed, for instance, that it’s rather tough to dispose of all the excess food from a house of shiva. While it’s okay to eat food within a house of shiva that is served to visitors, some people fear that it’s bad luck to take food out of a house of shiva – as though we’d be bringing the “taint of death” along with us. (I often advise that a good way to work around this bugaboo is to bring uneaten food to a local soup kitchen or to a particular individual who could particularly benefit from it.) Likewise, there is a custom that upon leaving a cemetery we wash our hands, as if to wash off the taint of death.

In these weeks leading up to Passover, we experience the rebirth of spring, which we celebrate on Passover. Passover itself is a festival rooted in the spring barley harvest. The month of Nisan itself was originally called “Aviv,” the “spring month.” We leave the deadness and cold of winter behind, as our spirits are buoyed by the rebirth of nature all around us. In addition, the historic overlay of the festival reminds us of our redemption from death in the drama surrounding our exodus from Egypt.

So in the coming weeks, I hope we will take advantage of these special Shabbatot, which can help to focus our attention on the multi-layered significance of the Passover festival, and in so doing, heighten our attention to the gifts of life and freedom with which we have been blessed.