Shabbat Parah: Mystery and Hope

This week, college basketball aficionados celebrate the annual festival known as March Madness; the tournament which ultimately crowns the top college basketball team in the U.S. March Madness began yesterday and today; with the first round of sixty four teams eligible and eager to advance to the next round.

For the uninitiated: The teams are divided into four regions; each region receiving sixteen teams seeded #1-16 according to their qualifications. In each region, the highest seeded team first plays the lowest seeded teams (that is, the team ranked #16 in that region). The #1 seed is generally a powerhouse from a major university. The #16 seed often represents a small or obscure college, which should not even stand on the same basketball court with the powerhouse.

As history demonstrates, the #16 seed has never defeated a #1 seed (although several games have been close). Putting aside the mechanics of how this tournament works, there are two factors which make the #1 versus #16 so intriguing: Mystery and hope. For the #1, the challenge lies in playing a team which may be inferior talent wise, but which is a team unknown. Unlike the games played during the regular season, the #1 usually has no idea about the #16 it will play. There is great mystery until they actually begin the game. The #16 may display certain quirks in its style of play to which the #1 is unaccustomed. It often takes a good portion of the game before the #1 figures out what to do and then glides to victory. On the other hand, since the game begins 0-0, the inferior team enters with the hope of accomplishing what no team has done before: Vanquish its highly acclaimed opponent. Were these two teams to play frequently during the year, the powerhouse would handily win every time. Regarding this one game however, the combination of mystery and hope give the underdog at least a somewhat fighting chance…

Mystery and hope characterize Shabbat Parah; the special name given to this upcoming Sabbath. Following the primary Torah portion, we read (from a second Torah) the enigmatic section about a red heifer (called parah adumah; hence the name Shabbat Parah for this Sabbath). The heifer was sacrificed as a means of ‘atonement’ for anyone who has come into contact with the dead. The priest who oversees the ritual, declares the ‘affected’ person to be ritually pure; eligible to resume daily activities within the community. Over the centuries scholars and commentators have suggested various reasons for the heifer ritual; but there is no consensus. What is clear: Several weeks prior to Passover we dedicate a Sabbath to reading about the heifer.

What does this ritual mean and why do we read it before Passover?

Although I can suggest reasons for the heifer, I believe it was intentionally couched in mystery. In a few weeks we celebrate Passover; the holiday which represents the formal establishment of a Jewish nation bound to a new and unique lifestyle called Torah. In becoming a nation, the Israelites will certainly learn about their faith; but much of their faith will still be crowded in mystery. Embracing Judaism constitutes an expression of faith long before all of the ritual and social details are known and understood. Passover represents our commitment to the Jewish faith; even if some (or many) of its tenets remain a mystery to us. Even among Jewish scholars and active ritual adherents; elements of Judaism still remain enigmatic or obscure. During our Seders for example, many of us still uncover new meanings which resolve mysteries of our Haggadah text. We pledge our loyalty to Judaism despite some uncertainty. Like figuring out how to play that #16 seed, we commit to our faith even if some of the details remain a mystery. Over time, our goal is to better understand our faith so that we can better appreciate its sacred purpose. As for the theme of hope; the more we study the particulars of Judaism, the more hope that our gradual understanding will lead to a greater, life-long identification with our tradition.

For many of us Judaism remains a mystery. For a minority of Jews; there is a willingness to embrace our religion even if some of its tenets are unclear. For most of us, mystery breeds disinterest and detachment. Our challenge is to embrace Judaism despite its mysteries; but to commit ourselves to uncovering the mysteries through study and through ritual/social/cultural participation.

We live in an era in which Judaism is largely ignored. Perhaps for a few years as our children receive a rudimentary Jewish education, we are somewhat engaged; but rarely with total spirit and rarely after the Bar or Bat Mitzvah years conclude. Our secular lives take precedence. No matter how we argue that when our children can no longer play sports or dance, their connection to faith will last a lifetime; we opt out of Jewish community. Statistics do not lie. Nevertheless, with Passover representing the birth of a true Am Yisrael, we express hope that this year we will finally enjoy an increase in those returning to their Jewish roots and becoming actively engaged in whatever manner possible. With this Passover season, we begin with the score 0-0; hoping against hope that we can conquer the obstacles which render Jewish life in America so irrelevant to our lives.

With Shabbat Parah and the coming of Passover, I hope we pledge to uncover (at least) some of the mysteries of Judaism. Likewise, I hope we can look forward to a new year which brings us together as a true Jewish people.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Klayman