Torah | Defiled or purified Our paradoxical nature

Shemini (Shabbat Parah)

Leviticus 9:1-11:47

Numbers 19:1-22

Ezekiel 36:16-38

Order or disorder? That is the question! Can human beings make sense of the world we live in and gain a measure of access into the inner workings of God’s design, or must the meaning and seeming disorder of our existence ultimately remain impenetrable to our human mind?

Shalom Rosenberg, the Israeli philosopher, argues that two special Torah readings, added to the regular Shabbat reading, offer distinct and conflicting answers to this question. While Parashat Shekalim, the additional Torah reading from a month ago, argues for the ordered nature of the world, Parashat Parah, which we mark this Shabbat, focuses on the paradoxical nature of our being, highlighting incomprehensible aspects of our existence.

The special reading of Parashat Shekalim describes the commandment of the half-shekel coin. According to this mitzvah, each adult recorded in the census was to provide a half-shekel coin as an offering to God. The funds collected were then used to sustain the daily Tamid sacrifice. The Torah is emphatic that each person included would bring an equal amount: “The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel” (Exodus 30:15).

The word shekalim (plural for shekel or coin) shares its root with the word mishkal (measure or weight). A coin, or half a coin as in this case, is a set and measured weight. In addition, the insistence upon an equal contribution by every person adds another element that is precise and measured in our service of God (as opposed to boundless, unaccounted giving). Finally, the daily Tamid sacrifice symbolizes a constant and reliable relationship with the divine. In this sense the half-shekel coin, as described in Parashat Shekalim, offers a vision of a world in which our access to the realm of God can be systematized and regulated and the meaning of our being can be explained by rules that make sense.

The special reading of Parashat Parah offers a stark contrast. This additional reading describes the process by which the ashes of a red heifer were used by the Kohanim (priests) to ritually cleanse a person who came in contact with a corpse. This rite more than any other stood out to our sages as a ritual devoid of rhyme or reason. First, the very use of a dead animal’s ashes to get rid of death impurity stemming from contact with a dead person’s body seemed like magic at best. Second, the rabbis point out that all those who busy themselves in preparing the red heifer’s ashes become ritually defiled themselves. Surprisingly, the very ashes that help cleanse the person being purified also ritually contaminate all others who come in contact with it (with the exception of the person directly involved in the act of purification).

Indeed, a rabbinic midrash teaches that even King Solomon, the wisest of all men, could not comprehend this commandment. Sefer Hachinuch, the classic medieval Spanish work that systematically enumerates the Torah’s commandments as they appear in each Torah portion, was also utterly stumped by this mitzvah, noting that “My hands grew weak and I was afraid to open my mouth.” 

Rosenberg teaches that it is quite possible that the inexplicability of this mitzvah is meant to reflect the inexplicable nature of our encounter with death and that the ritual’s paradoxical nature (the pure is defiled and the defiled becomes pure) is meant to echo the paradoxical nature of our very being. In this way, this particular commandment gives voice and expression to life’s absurdity, as French existentialists commonly describe our existence, and to “the unbearable lightness of being” as Milan Kundera aptly put it. Parashat Parah therefore offers a vision of a world in which our access to the realm of God remains impenetrable and the meaning of our being is rendered senseless by rituals devoid of any reason or rational explanation.

So which one is it: order or disorder? Through Parashat Shekalim, with its ordered vision of our universe, and Parashat Parah, with its paradoxical approach, our tradition insists that we look at life through both lenses. As human beings we are called to give a detailed accounting of all that there is, yet simultaneously remain mindful of what can never be accounted for at all.

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected]


Rabbi Yonatan Cohen

Rabbi Yonatan Cohen is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley. He can be reached at [email protected].