FROM THE TORAH
At the conclusion of the previous Sedra Tsav, Moses presided over the offerings of ordination for Aaron and his sons. He sprinkled some of the Anointing Oil and some of the blood from the Altar upon Aaron and his vestments and upon his sons and their vestments, thereby sanctifying all of them. Aaron and his sons were instructed to remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, day and night, the complete period of their ordination. During those seven days of dedication they would repeat what was done on the first day, to seek atonement for themselves. In this Sedra Shemini, upon conclusion of the seven days of dedication, on the “eighth” (shemini) day, the regular service for everyone—Aaron, his sons, and the Children of Israel—begins, but with a fatal error. The implied distinction between permitted and forbidden follows in the dietary rules of permitted and forbidden animals.
Commencement of Service
AARON PERFORMS THE OFFERINGS
Now, on the Eighth (Shemini) Day (the first day following the week of ordination), Moses addresses Aaron, his sons, and the Elders of Israel. He instructs Aaron to offer before the Eternal a calf of the herd for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering, both without blemish. He further prompts Aaron to instruct the Children of Israel to sacrifice before the Eternal a male goat for a sin offering, a calf and a lamb both a year old and without blemish for a burnt offering, and an ox and a ram for a peace offering, along with a meal offering mixed with oil, “for today the Eternal will appear to you” (Leviticus 9:4)!
Thus everyone brings what they were commanded to take to the front of the Tent of Meeting, all the congregation coming forward and standing before the Eternal. As Moses directs, Aaron approaches the Altar and slaughters his calf of sin offering. Aaron receives the blood from his sons, dips his finger in it and puts it upon the horns of the Altar, pouring out the rest of it at the base of the Altar. He makes the fat, the kidneys and the appendage on the liver, smoke upon the Altar, as the Eternal commanded Moses. The meat and the skin he burned with fire outside of the camp.
Then he slaughters the burnt offering. Aaron’s sons present him with the blood, which he dashes around the Altar. They present the burnt offering to him cut up into pieces, along with the head, and he makes them smoke upon the Altar. He washes the entrails and the legs and causes them to smoke upon the Altar along with the burnt offering.
As for the people’s offering, Aaron slaughters the goat of the people’s sin offering and presents it as a sin offering as with the first sin offering. He then treats the burnt offering in accordance with its rule. Of the meal offering he causes a handful of it to smoke upon the Altar, in addition to the burnt offering of the morning (cf. Exodus 29:38-40,42). He slaughters the ox and the ram for the people’s well-being offering sacrifice, and his sons present him with the blood, which he dashes around the Altar. They put the fat parts from the ox and from the ram—the tail, the covering, the kidneys, and the appendage of the liver—upon the breasts and cause the fat to smoke upon the Altar. Aaron lifts the breasts and the right thigh as a wave offering before the Eternal as Moses commanded.
Now, with his hands uplifted towards the people, Aaron blesses them. He steps down from performing the offerings and comes with Moses to the Tent of Meeting. When they emerge, they bless the people, and the Dense Presence of the Eternal is seen by all of the people. A fire goes out from before the Eternal and consumes the burnt offering and the fat parts upon the Altar. All of the people see, they exult, then they fall upon their faces.
NADAB AND ABIHU OFFER SPURIOUS FIRE
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu, each taking his fire pan, put fire in them and place Incense upon it, and offer before the Eternal spurious fire, which He had not commanded them. From before the Eternal a fire goes out and consumes them: they die before the Eternal. Moses says to Aaron: This is what the Eternal meant when He said:
Through those who are near to Me
I shall be sanctified,
and before all of the people
I shall be glorified.
Aaron is silent. In the meantime, Moses orders Mishael and Elzaphan, sons of Uzziel uncle of Aaron, to remove their cousins from before the Sanctuary to a place outside of the camp. They carry them out by their Tunics. To Aaron and to his sons Elazar and Ithamar, Moses says: Do not uncover your hair and do not rend your garments, lest you die and He become wroth with all of the community, even though your kinsmen, the rest of the House of Israel, may mourn the burning that the Eternal has caused. Do not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting lest you die since the Anointing Oil of the Eternal is upon you. So they act: in accordance with the word of Moses.
The Eternal imparts the following instruction to Aaron: When you come to the Tent of Meeting, do not drink wine or any other intoxicant—you and your sons—lest you die. This is an everlasting statute throughout your generations, and it is intended to distinguish between what is holy and what is profane, between the impure and the pure, and to instruct the Children of Israel in all of the laws which the Eternal has communicated to them through Moses.
To Aaron, and to Elazar and Ithamar his surviving sons, Moses says: Take the meal offering that remains from the fire offerings of the Eternal and eat it unleavened beside the Altar, for it is most holy. You should eat it in a sacred place because it is the due of you and your sons from the fire offerings of the Eternal, for thus have I been commanded.
But you may eat the breast of waving and the thigh of terumah (gift offering), when presented with the fire offerings of the fat parts which are waved before the Eternal—you, your sons and your daughters—in any pure place because it is the due given you from the sacrifices of the well-being offerings of the Children of Israel. This is an everlasting statute for you and your sons, as the Eternal has commanded.
Then Moses inquires concerning the goat of the sin offering (cf. Leviticus 9:15) and discovers that it had been burned. Angrily, he turns to Elazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s surviving sons, and asks them why they had not eaten the sin offering in a sacred place (as would usually be the case; cf. 9:8-11). After all, it is most holy, “and He gave it to you to remove the guilt of the community, to seek atonement for them before the Eternal” (Leviticus 10:17)! Even if its blood had not been brought into the Sanctuary, Moses insists, they should have eaten it in the Sanctuary, as he says he commanded (ibid. 18). (He did so command with regard to the meal offering; cf. Leviticus 10:12-13.)
Aaron responds to Moses: Today they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Eternal, then such terrible things happen to me! Had I then eaten a sin offering, would the Eternal have approved? When Moses hears his words, he realizes that Aaron is right.
Permitted and Forbidden Animals
ANIMAL FOODS PERMITTED AND FORBIDDEN
TO THE CHILDREN OF ISRAEL
The Eternal presents Moses and Aaron with rules and items to distinguish between animals permitted and forbidden for food, labeled “clean” and “unclean,” respectively, both as to the animals themselves and to the persons or objects with which they have contact. This instruction is to be communicated to the Children of Israel.
Permitted Land Animals
Permitted land animals are only those that have true hoofs which are cloven and that bring up cud. However, if such an animal has already died, one who touches its carcass shall become unclean until the evening. Anyone who eats of its carcass or carries its carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening.
Forbidden Land Animals
Land animals which bring up cud but do not have true hoofs, like the camel or the rock-badger or the hare, are not permitted; they are unclean for you. The swine, which has true hoofs which are cloven but does not bring up cud, is also forbidden; it is unclean for you. You may not eat of their flesh, and whoever touches their flesh shall be unclean. You shall not touch their carcass, and whoever touches their carcass shall be unclean until the evening. Whoever carries their carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening.
Among those land animals that walk on all fours, animals that walk on their paws are unclean for you. Whoever touches their carcass shall be unclean until the evening. Whoever carries their carcass shall wash his clothes and be unclean until the evening.
Any animal that swarms upon the earth is an abomination: it shall not be eaten. Do not eat that which crawls upon its belly or that which walks on four or more legs, for they are an abomination. Do not make yourselves abominable by any swarming thing, and do not pollute yourselves by them so that you become unclean through them. For I, the Eternal, am your God. Sanctify yourselves and be holy, as I am holy, and do not pollute yourselves through any swarming thing that creeps upon the earth. For I am the Eternal, who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall be holy as I am holy.
Among those land animals that swarm on the earth, there are eight named animals that are unclean for you, among them the mole, the mouse and various reptiles. Whoever touches their carcass shall be unclean until the evening. Any object which receives upon it their carcass shall be unclean. If the object is a wooden utensil or a garment of skin or cloth—anything that is used for work—when immersed in water, it is unclean until the evening, when it becomes clean. Any drinkable liquid that was inside the object becomes unclean. If it falls into an earthen vessel, anything else that is inside it becomes unclean, and you must break the vessel itself. If it falls upon an oven or stove, it becomes unclean and must be smashed. If it falls upon food that had come into contact with water, the food shall be unclean. However, a spring or a cistern shall remain clean, but whoever touches the carcass that fell into it becomes unclean. Seed that is intended for sowing remains clean, but if water was put upon the seed before contact with any part of the carcass, then the seed is unclean for you.
Permitted and Forbidden Water Animals
Of water animals, whether in seas or in streams, only those are permitted that have both fins and scales. This applies to swarming things and to other living creatures in the water. If they do not possess both fins and scales, they shall be an abomination for you: you shall not eat of their flesh, and their carcass shall be an abomination to you.
Of birds, there are twenty named items to be treated as abominations, not to be eaten, such as the eagle, the vulture, the raven, the ostrich, and the bat. Some of the items, like falcons and hawks, are abominations in all of their varieties.
Permitted and Forbidden Winged Swarming Things
Of winged swarming things, the following are permitted that walk on all fours but have jointed legs above their feet, in order to leap with them upon the ground: all varieties of locusts, crickets and grasshoppers. All other winged swarming things that walk on all fours are an abomination for you.
Such is the instruction regarding the animals and the birds and every living creature that moves in the water and that swarms upon the earth, with the purpose of distinguishing between the unclean and the clean, between the creature that may be eaten and the creature which is not to be eaten.
Maftir for Shabbat Parah
Third of the Four Special Parashiyot
Relief from Defilement
The Eternal communicates a statute of the Torah (chukat hatorah) to Moses and Aaron:
The Children of Israel should bring you an entirely red cow (parah adumah) without blemish and on which no yoke has been put. You shall give it to Elazar the Kohen, who shall have it slaughtered in his presence outside of the camp. Elazar the Kohen shall sprinkle some of its blood seven times towards the front of the Tent of Meeting. The cow shall be burned entirely, in his presence. The Kohen shall add cedar wood, hyssop and crimson to the burning.
The Kohen and the one who burns it shall wash their clothing and bathe in water before re-entering the camp, and they remain impure until the evening.
A ritually pure person collects the ashes and leaves them outside of the camp in a ritually pure place for the Israelite community, both Children of Israel and the sojourner. The ashes of the red cow shall be used for water that removes impurity, as a statute for all time. The collector of the ashes shall wash his clothes and remain impure until the evening.
Whoever touches a human corpse becomes impure for seven days. In that state he would defile the Tabernacle of the Eternal and be cut off from Israel. He must instead have the water that removes impurity thrown upon him on the third day and on the seventh day of his impurity, after which he must wash his clothes and bathe in water, becoming pure again in the evening.
Anyone who touches a human corpse or bone or grave outside becomes ritually impure for seven days.
If a person dies in a tent, everyone else in the tent becomes ritually impure for seven days, and any open vessel in the same tent becomes ritually impure.
The procedure for purification requires the taking of some of the ashes and adding to them fresh water in a vessel. A ritually pure person dips some hyssop in the water and sprinkles it on the person who became ritually impure, on the third day and on the seventh day of his impurity. For a tent and its open vessels, he sprinkles the water also on the tent and on all the vessels that were in the tent.
The one who sprinkles the water must wash his clothes.
Whoever touches the water shall be impure until the evening.
Whatever the ritually impure person touches becomes ritually impure, and the person who touches him shall be ritually impure until the evening.
FROM THE PROPHETS
Haftarah for Shabbat Parah
Purification of Israel from Exile
The word of the Eternal to the Prophet: Son of man, the House of Israel dwell upon their Land, defiling it by their way, which is like the impurity of a woman. I therefore pour out My anger upon them for the blood that they have spilled upon the Land and for the idols that they have worshipped. I am scattering them among the nations, but even there will the House of Israel come and profane My Name by their very presence as “the people of the Eternal” (Ezekiel 36:20) who “went out from His Land” (ibid.).
Now I am showing compassion for My Holy Name which the House of Israel have profaned among the nations to which they have come. I am removing you from them, taking you back to your own Land. “I am sprinkling pure water upon you, that you may be clean; from all of your idols I shall purify you” (Ezekiel 36:25).
I give you a new heart and take away the heart of stone from your flesh. I place My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and keep My ordinances. I will increase for you the vegetables and the fruit of the Land so that you will not be associated with famine among the nations.
Then you shall recall your evil ways, and you shall loathe yourselves for the iniquities and abominations that you have committed. I do this not for your sake. Be ashamed and embarrassed for your ways, O House of Israel! When I cause your desolate cities to be inhabited, the nations around you shall see that I, the Eternal, can turn what is ruined into the Garden of Eden. I shall increase your number, O House of Israel, as greatly as were the number of people and of sacrificial animals in Jerusalem at the festive seasons.
FROM TALMUD AND MIDRASH
Leviticus Rabbah 11:1
Nadab and Abihu Compared to Adam and Eve
“On the Eighth Day (following the seven days of ordination)…
Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu…offer before the Eternal
spurious fire, which He had not commanded them.
From before the Eternal a fire goes out
and consumes them: they die before the Eternal.”
Rabbi Ahava bar Kahana explained this event by reference to the following:
“Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn out her seven pillars;
she has prepared her meat
and mixed her wine;
she has set her table.
She has dispatched her maidens
and declares upon the heights of the city:
Whoever is foolish—let him turn [yasur] here;
lacking of heart—she speaks to him…”
As “wisdom” is the means by which “the Eternal founded the earth” (Proverbs 3:19), Rabbi Jeremiah bar Ilai identified “wisdom” in Proverbs 9:1-4 with the Holy One, blessed be He, and understood those words to refer to the creation of the world. The “seven pillars” are the six days of creation (cf. Exodus 31:17) followed by the Sabbath day (cf. Genesis 2:3). “Meat” and “wine” allude to the bringing forth of land animals (cf. Genesis 1:24) and the gathering of waters (cf. Genesis 1:9), respectively. “Set her table” is the proper completion of the table’s presentation with provision of fruits (cf. Genesis 1:11). “Dispatched her maidens” is the creation of Adam and Eve, and “the heights of the city” reflects their flirtation with divinity as reflected in the serpent’s presumption, “You will be like God” (cf. Genesis 3:5).
After all of the first seven days’ consecration, on the eighth day, as it were, Adam and Eve abandoned the will of God: “Whoever is foolish—he shall turn [yasur] here” (Proverbs 9:4): the foolish turn away from the will of the Holy One, blessed be He, and follow instead the will of the serpent! But ultimately, it is the Holy One, blessed be He, who speaks to Adam of his end, “lacking of heart” (ibid.), meaning that he will die, “for dust you are and to dust shall you return” (Genesis 3:19).
Leviticus Rabbah 12:1
How We Know that Wine was the Cause of Death
Directly after the incident of Nadab and Abihu,
who “offered before the Eternal spurious fire” (Leviticus 10:1),
the Eternal imparts the following instruction to Aaron:
“When you come to the Tent of Meeting,
do not drink wine or any other intoxicant
—you and your sons—lest you die…” (Leviticus 10:8-9)
This is what is meant by:
“Look not upon the wine
when it is red,
colorfully tempting in the cup,
going down easily.
For in the end
it bites like a serpent,
and stings like
a venomous snake;
your eyes shall see spurious sights…!”
Just as a venomous snake makes the difference between life and death, so the wine made a fatal difference between Aaron and his sons, as Rabbi Simeon teaches: Aaron’s sons died only because they entered the Tent of Meeting under the influence of wine.
Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Levi taught: This can be compared to a king who had a trusted attendant. When the king discovered him to be indiscreet in his personal behavior, he had him beheaded without explanation and appointed another in his place. No one was told why the king had the original attendant beheaded, but because the king warned the new attendant not to be indiscreet in his personal behavior, we infer that such was the reason why the king killed the first attendant. Similarly: “From before the Eternal a fire goes out and consumes them: they die before the Eternal” (Leviticus 10:2), and we do not know why they died! But because He then commands Aaron, “Do not drink wine or any other intoxicant…” (Leviticus 10:9), we infer that they died only because of the wine. That is why the verse displays a preference for Aaron and singles him out for the commandment of “Do not drink wine or any other intoxicant…” (Leviticus 10:9).
Leviticus Rabbah 12:2
Moses Consoles Aaron
“A fire came out from before the Eternal
and consumed them (Nadab and Abihu)…
Moses said to Aaron:
That is what the Eternal meant when He said,
‘Through those who are near to Me
I shall be sanctified,
and before all of the people
I shall be glorified,’
and Aaron remained silent.”
After the incident of Nadab and Abihu,
the Eternal singles out Aaron for instruction:
“The Eternal imparts the following instruction to Aaron:
When you come to the Tent of Meeting,
do not drink wine or any other intoxicant…”
In order to understand this,
Rabbi Isaac opened his discourse
with the Prophet’s words:
“Your words being offered,
I devour them;
Your word is for me
happiness and heartfelt joy,
as Your Name is upon me,
Eternal One, God of Hosts!”
Rabbi Ishmael bar Nachman explained:
The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moses on Mount Sinai, “There (at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting) I shall meet with the Children of Israel, and it shall be sanctified through My Kavod (“Intense Presence” or “Glory”) (Exodus 29:42-43). Moses began to understand these words only later, when he witnessed one of the phenomena on the Eighth Day:
“Moses and Aaron enter the Tent of Meeting. When they emerge, they bless the people, and the Kavod of the Eternal is seen by all of the people. A fire goes out from before the Eternal and consumes the burnt offering and the fat parts upon the Altar. All of the people see, they exult, then they fall upon their faces.” (Leviticus 9:23-24)
Whereupon Moses says to Aaron: Aaron, my brother, from Mount Sinai it was said to me (referring interpretively to Exodus 29:42-43, quoted above), “In the future I (the Eternal) shall meet with Israel at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and there will be a sanctification before them of this House, and through a great man (cf. Exodus 29:43: “through My glory”) I shall sanctify it.” I thought that He meant that this House would be sanctified through His glory, that is to say, either through you or through me.
But when Aaron’s sons draw near to present their offering and are also consumed by a fire from the Eternal, Moses says to Aaron: Now it is apparent that your two sons are more preferred than either of us, as they have died for the Sanctification of His Name. “That is what He meant when He said, ‘Through those who are near to Me (who offer themselves to Me) I shall be sanctified, and before all of the people I shall be glorified’” (Leviticus 10:3), as “through My glory” (Exodus 29:43), through these great men, Nadab and Abihu!
Upon hearing this, Aaron knows that his sons are distinguished of Heaven. He remains silent and receives good reward for his silence, the reward of being singled out by the commandment:
“The Eternal imparts the following instruction to Aaron:
When you come to the Tent of Meeting,
do not drink wine or any other intoxicant…”
Aaron now recognizes what the prophet later expressed:
“Your word is for me
happiness and heartfelt joy,
as Your Name is upon me,
Eternal One, God of hosts!”
Leviticus Rabbah 13:2
He Sees and Discerns
“He shall stand [amad] and shake [vayimoded] the earth,
see [ra’ah] and make nations tremble [vayatter]…”
Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai:
He stood [amad] and measured [vayimoded] the earth,
saw [ra’ah] and released [vayatter] nations!
How did He stand and measure the earth?
The Holy One, blessed be He, took the measure of all of the nations and found none worthy to receive the Torah but Israel.
The Holy One, blessed be He, took the measure of all generations and found none worthy to receive Torah but the generation of the Wilderness.
The Holy One, blessed be He, took the measure of all of the mountains and found none worthy to host His Presence but Mount Moriah.
The Holy One, blessed be He, took the measure of all of the cities and found none worthy for the building of the Temple but Jerusalem.
The Holy One, blessed be He, took the measure of all of the mountains and found none worthy to have the Torah given upon it but Sinai.
The Holy One, blessed be He, took the measure of all of the lands and found no land suitable for Israel but the Land of Israel.
How did He see and release nations?
It may be compared to one who went out to his threshing floor, taking with him a dog and an ass. He loaded the ass with 5 measures of grain and the dog with 2. The ass had no problem, but the dog was panting. So he transferred a measure from the dog to the ass. The ass had no problem, but the dog was still panting. When he transferred the remaining measure from the dog to the ass, the dog still panted. “However much you do or do not carry,” said he to the dog, “you pant!”
Thus it was when the gentile nations accepted upon themselves the Seven Commandments of Noah. When they were unable to bear even those seven, they threw them off upon Israel. So did He see and release the nations.
Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai compared this to a physician who was treating two patients. He ordered one of them not to be given certain foods. But for the other patient he permitted the eating of any food that the patient wanted. What made the difference? The patient that he restricted was expected to live, and certain foods needed to be avoided in order to protect his health and prolong his life. But for the other patient, who was not expected to survive, there was no reason to restrict him, as his diet would make no difference.
Thus, for the nations of the world, who are not destined for the world to come, “Every moving thing that lives may be food for you; as the green herb I allow you everything” (Genesis 9:3). But for Israel, whose destiny is life in the world to come:
“These only are the living things that you may eat
from among all of the animals that are on the earth…!”
Leviticus Rabbah 13:3
Talmud Chullin 42a
“Every saying of God is refined…”
Every teaching of God is a purification:
The commandments are given by God for the express purpose of refining His creations!
“…He is a Shield to those who take refuge in Him.”
He will be a Shield to those who show restraint through Him!
Rabbi Abba bar Kahana:
“Hearken to Me, you who pursue righteousness…
for Torah shall come out from Me…”
“A law (torah) shall be excepted by Me”:
An innovation of Torah shall come forth from Me!
Rabbi Berechia in the name of Rabbi Isaac:
A festive dessert will the Holy One, blessed be He, serve to His righteous servants in time to come. Whoever has refrained from eating forbidden meat in this world will be privileged to eat it in the world to come. Such is implied by the Eternal, “The fat of a dead or wounded animal may be used for any other work” (Leviticus 7:24), when He repeated, “and definitely do not eat it!” (ibid.), that is to say, not in this world in order that you may eat of it in the world to come! That is why Moses admonishes Israel, “This is the living thing which you may eat from among all of the animals that are upon the earth” (Leviticus 11:2)! According to Rabbi Chiyah, “This” teaches that Moses would hold up an animal—or a fish (ibid. 9) or a bird (ibid. 13)—to show Israel in each case what is clean and what is unclean!
It was a teaching of the School of Rabbi Ishmael that “This is the living thing which you may eat…” (Leviticus 11:2) means that the Holy One, blessed be He, actually held up each species of animal and showed it to Moses, saying to him, “This shall you eat” and “This shall you not eat!”
“Happy is the one
whose help is the God of Jacob…
the Eternal releases the captives [mateer asurim]…”
The Eternal ultimately permits the forbidden [mateer asurim]!
Leviticus Rabbah 13:5
Rome Compared to the Swine
“Land animals which bring up cud but do not have cleft hoofs…
are not permitted…
inversely, the swine, which does have a cleft hoof and cleaves the hoof,
but does not bring up cud, is also forbidden…”
Said Rabbi Samuel bar Nachman: All of the Prophets foresaw the aggression of foreign powers. This is intimated already in the Garden of Eden, as explained by Rabbi Tanchuma—and some say by Rabbi Menachama in the name of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi: “A river goes out from Eden to water the Garden…” (Genesis 2:10)—In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will fill a cup of reprisal against the nations of the world! “…And from there it divides into four principals” (ibid.)—namely, Babylonia, Medea, Greece, and Edom (Rome)!
Rabbi Pinchas and Rabbi Chilkiah in the name of Rabbi Simone: But of all the Prophets, only two actually disclosed Edom (Rome): Asaph and Moses. Asaph said, “The swine out of the forest tears Israel to pieces” (Psalms 80:14), and Moses proscribed, “the swine” (Leviticus 11:7)!
Why then is Rome portrayed as a swine? “The swine, which does have a cleft hoof and cleaves the hoof” (ibid.): the redundant phrase, “and cleaves the hoof,” suggests “and hoofs the hoof,” that is to say, it tries to call attention to its cloven hoof even though “it does not bring up the cud and is therefore unclean” (ibid.). Just as the swine lies down and extends its hooves as if to say, “See, I am clean!” so did that wicked kingdom project itself as the fount of law and justice while it bolstered its arrogance through violence and pillage. This was typified by the Roman magistrate in Caesaria who executed thieves, rapists and sorcerers, and boasted to one of his advisors, “I do all three myself in a single night!”
Pesikta Rabbati 14:65a
Why the Parah Adumah?
“The ashes of the red cow
shall be used for water that removes impurity,
as a statute for all time.”
A gentile once asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai: The things that you do with the parah adumah (cf. Numbers 19:1-22) seem like magic. You obtain a cow, burn it, crush it, and pour water over its ashes. If one of you is defiled by a human corpse, you sprinkle two or three drops and declare, “You are pure!”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the gentile: Have you ever been invaded by a bad spirit? No, said the gentile. Well, then, asked the Rabbi, have you ever seen what they do to one who has been? The gentile answered: They turn roots into smoke under him, pour water upon him, and the bad spirit goes away. Said the Rabbi: Do your ears hear what your mouth is saying? The bad spirit is the spirit of impurity, as is written: “I shall also make the false prophets and the impure spirit pass away from the Land” (Zechariah 13:2).
When the gentile left, his students said to him: Rabbi, you refuted him with a reed, but how would you answer us? The Rabbi said to them: A corpse does not defile, and water does not purify. Rather, it is simply a statute of God. The Holy One, blessed be He, said: I have made a statute, issued a decree, which you are not permitted to transgress—“This is a statute of the Torah which the Eternal has commanded…” (Numbers 19:2)!
Another question about parah adumah: While all the other offerings are male, why is this one female? Said Rabbi Ayvu: It may be likened to a handmaiden’s child who soils the palace of the king. Says the king: Let the mother come and clean up her child’s mess. Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He: Let the red cow come and atone for the incident of the golden calf (cf. Exodus 32)!
Pesikta Rabbati Parah 14
Torah of a Cow
“This is the statute of the Torah…
let them bring you an entirely red cow…”
Our Rabbis told the story of a Jew who owned a cow that was used for ploughing. His circumstances became strained, so he had to sell the cow. It was purchased by a gentile. The gentile also used the cow for ploughing, and for six days out of the week there was no problem. However, when he tried to make the cow plough on Saturday, the cow would only lie down under the yoke. Even when the gentile beat the cow to get her to move, she would not budge. So he went and found the Jew who had sold him the cow and demanded, “Take your cow back, as there seems to be something wrong with her: as much as I beat her, she does not move!” The Jew immediately understood what the “problem” was: she was accustomed to rest on Shabbat.
So the Jew said to the gentile, “Come and I will get her up.” When the Jew came to the cow, he whispered in her ear, “O cow, O cow, you know that when you were owned by me, you would plough on weekdays, and on Shabbat you would rest. Since now, because of my sins, you are owned by a gentile, I would request that you stand up and plough,” whereupon she immediately got up and ploughed.
The gentile said to the Jew, “As I said before, you will have to take back your cow, because I cannot run after you to get her up every time I need her to plough. I tired myself out and beat her, yet she would not get up. I won’t let you go until you tell me what you whispered in her ear!” The Jew began by trying to pacify him and then said to him, “I used no magic or sorcery but simply whispered such-and-such in her ear whereupon she got up and ploughed.”
Then the gentile became frightened, thinking: If a cow, who cannot speak or reason, recognizes her Creator (by resting when He rested), then how can I, whom my Creator has fashioned in His image and given reason, not go and recognize Him! Immediately he went and became a Jew. He learned and became a worthy student of Torah, whom they called Yochanan ben Torta. “Torta” can be read as Toratah, “her Torah,” meaning Yochanan son of her (the cow’s) Torah! To this day our Rabbis cite halacha in his name.
Now if you are surprised that one person took refuge under the wings of the Shechinah because of a cow, it is also because of a cow that all of Israel can achieve purification, as we learn from the reading of the statute of (chukat) Torah: the “red cow” (Numbers 19:2)! (Chukat implies a statute that has no apparent logical justification based upon human experience; rather it is an arbitrary decree, a divine fiat.)
Talmud Yoma 86a
Yerushalmi Bava Metziah 2:5
Deuteronomy Rabbah 3:3
Agents of Heaven
“The House of Israel dwell upon their Land,
defiling it by their way…
I am scattering them among the nations,
but even there will the House of Israel come
and profane My Name by their very presence
as the people of the Eternal who went out from His Land.”
Abaye taught that if one studies the Oral and Written Torah, attends scholars dutifully, yet conducts his business dishonestly and treats others unpleasantly, of him shall they say: Woe unto him who studies Torah and woe unto his father and his rabbi who teach him Torah; see how corrupt are his acts and how ugly are his ways; and it is about him that the Prophet said, “They profane My Name, these are the people of the Eternal who went out from His Land” (Ezekiel 36:20)!
“You shall love the Eternal your God.”
Abaye cited the teaching: This means not only that you should love the Eternal but also that you should make loved the Eternal, that you should make the Name of Heaven beloved by others by virtue of your faithful treatment of them.
Shimon ben Shetach was a purveyor of flax, a laborious occupation. His students said to him: Rabbi, reduce your labor, let us acquire a donkey for you so that you will not have to carry the flax yourself! They went and purchased a donkey for him from an Arab, and it turned out that a precious stone was hanging from the neck of the animal. So his students said to Shimon ben Shetach: Rabbi, from this time forth you will not have to work at all! Why? he asked. “A blessing from the Eternal makes rich” (Proverbs 10:22)! they quoted, and they explained: We bought you a donkey from an Arab, and a gem was attached to it. Did the man know this? asked their Rabbi. No, they said. Go back and return it, he instructed them. But is it not true—argued his students—that even those Rabbis who believe that property stolen from a gentile must be returned are of the opinion that what a gentile loses can be kept? Do you think, answered Shimon ben Shetach, that I am a barbarian? I bought a donkey, not a gem. I would rather hear, “Blessed is the God of the Jews!” than possess all of the wealth that is in the world. As it turned out, when the jewel was returned to its rightful owner, that Arab proclaimed, “Blessed is the Eternal, the God of Shimon ben Shetach!”
From the faithfulness of flesh and blood do we know the faithfulness of the Holy One, blessed be He!
Seder Eliahu Rabbah 18
Shemot Rabbah 2:5
Midrash Psalms 20:1
He feels our pain
“I am scattering them among the nations,
but even there will it (the House of Israel) come [yavo]
and profane My Name…”
Radak (Rabbi David Kimchi, 12th-13th cent., France)
associated these verses midrashically with:
“I recall the Eternal’s lovingkindness…
In all of their suffering
He also suffers!”
For as the Eternal scatters the House of Israel among the nations, even there will He come [yavo] (cf. Ezekiel 36:19-20)!
Blessed is the One whose mercy is abundant to Israel at all times! Even when they act corruptly and He is angry with them, His compassion reaches them first. “In…their suffering He also suffers” (Isaiah 63:9)—this applies to the suffering of the nation. Whence do we apply the suffering of an individual? “When one calls upon Me, I shall answer; I am with him in trouble” (Psalms 91:15)! Hence the Prophet said, “In all of their suffering” (Isaiah 63:9): of both nation and individual!
“My Beloved is knocking:
‘Open for Me, My sister, My beloved,
My mate, My pure one [tammati]…’”
(Song of Songs 5:2)
At Sinai they were twinned [nittammemu] with Me, wherewith they declared, “All that the Eternal has spoken, we shall observe and listen” (Exodus 24:7)! Rabbi Yannai expounded: Just as with twins—when the head of one is hurt, the other one feels the pain. Thus said the Holy One, blessed be He, “I am with him in pain” (Psalms 91:15)!
Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to Moses: Do you not feel that I am engulfed in pain just as Israel is engulfed in pain? Know it from the place that I have chosen to speak with you: from this lowly bush of thorns (cf. Exodus 3:2ff.)!
Said the Holy One, blessed be He: When suffering overtakes Israel and they cry out to Me, My Presence is joined with them and I answer them, as was said, “When he calls me, I shall answer…” (Psalms 91:15), and the reason is “…I am with him in trouble” (ibid.)!
Rabbi Yudan likened this to a pregnant woman who is angry with her mother. Her mother retreats upstairs. But when her mother hears the screams of her daughter downstairs, she herself starts screaming upstairs. Her neighbors, hearing the mother, ask her why she is screaming: “Are you giving birth with her?!” The mother replied: “Isn’t my daughter in pain? How can I bear her screams without screaming along with her? For the pain of my daughter is my pain as well!”
Thus we find, when the Temple was destroyed, there was crying and mourning throughout all of the world, as the Prophet said, “My Lord, God of Hosts, declared that day to be one of crying and mourning” (Isaiah 22:12). But the ministering angels questioned the Holy One, blessed be He: Should this be Your declaration (over the Destruction that You endorsed)? Rather, as is written: “Pride and glory, power and rejoicing, are the order of the day before You” (I Chronicles 16:27)! He answered them: “But with My House destroyed, My children consigned to shackles, am I not in pain? Indeed it is written, ‘I am with him (in exile) in pain’ (Psalms 91:15)! So, ‘Why should I (and he) remain here…’ (Isaiah 52:5)? ‘…when all of the day My Name is spurned’” (ibid.)?!