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Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Parshat Parah

As the Pesach holiday approached, it was essential to remind the people that one must maintain a state of “purity,” as one who was “impure” could not partake of the Korban Pesach. For this reason, both this week’s special maftir reading as well as the accompanying haftarah focus upon the concepts of tahara and tumah, purity and defilement. Understandably, these concepts can be difficult to explain to today’s society since they relate directly to the sanctity of the Beit Hamikdash (and the sacrificial rite) that, to our sorrow, has not yet been rebuilt. As a result, many mistakenly equate the state of purity with that of cleanliness and the state of defilement with that of squalor. Yet, tumah and tahara are not physical states; they are halachic ones so that there is no recognizable difference between a person in the state of purity and one who is not.

In its essence, retaining a state of tahara requires a conscious avoidance of direct—or indirect—contact with the dead. This distancing from mortality is meant to bring us closer to the Immortal One and keep us constantly aware of His presence. But, while the maftir reading focuses upon the purification of the individual, the haftarah speaks of the purification of the nation as a whole, an Israelite nation who “defiled” the holy land—not through contact with the dead, but through immoral behavior that violated the sanctity of Eretz Yisrael. The parsha discusses tum’at haguf, a physical impurity, while the haftarah discusses a moral defilement. And, whereas the Torah speaks of a person defiled by a place (a tent in which a corpse is found), the navi, as Rav Yehuda Shaviv writes, tells of a people who spread impurity to a place.

The prophet Yechezkel asserts that tahara means even more than the careful adherence to the specific laws of purity. For the nation to be truly tahor, pure, God demands that they cease the violence and bloodshed that defiled both the land and Hashem’s holy name, and lead a fully moral lifestyle that will sanctify God’s name. To this end, the navi promises that God will return us to His land, instill within us a more sensitive and caring heart, and purify us from our sins. It is then that the land will give forth her fruits and Israel will dwell upon the land securely.

How fitting for our generation to be able to read this prophecy while we live it, and how important it is for us especially to remember our obligation to sanctify Hashem’s name and keep the land pure. Certainly, we find this selection so meaningful for these weeks before Pesach as we are reminded that the holiday celebrates not only our past redemption—but our future one as well.

By Rabbi Neil N. Winkler

 Rabbi Neil Winkler is a past rabbi of the Young Israel of Fort Lee and now lives in Israel.