(This essay was written by Moshe Dan).
In order to understand the Parah Adumah we have to go back (at least) to the story of what happened to the scouts (meraglim). Their negative report so confused and demoralized the people that they refused to follow Moshe into Eretz Yisrael – sealing their fate (to die in the desert) and changing the course of history (settling the Land.without a struggle, bringing the messianic age). They failed to appreciate themselves and to believe in their relationship with God. It was catastrophic; the first Tisha B’Av.
The rebellion of Korach and his followers occurs next, rending the fabric of the Jewish people and attacking the leadership structure that had brought them out of slavery, and bound them in covenant to the Torah. The result was the death of thousands – and no doubt, many great leaders among them. Some of the finest minds, in their lust for power, betrayed the people, and undermined their mission. They engendered disputes and threatened the unity of the Jewish people for their own interests although laced with lofty ideals.
A devastating plague struck the people. Aaron stood “between the dead and the living,” and the plague stopped, but not before many died. Then, our beloved leaders, Aaron and Miriam died. Swarms of poisonous snakes attacked the people and many more died.
Amidst such overwhelming tragedies, surrounded by death we learn the ritual of the Parah Adumah, innocent (unyoked) and special (blood-colored), sacrificed outside the camp, as if to confirm its unique strangeness. Its purpose is to teach us about purity and impurity. But a contradiction is imbedded inside the ritual: the one who performs the ceremony becomes ritually impure, even though the ashes that he produces enable someone else to become ritually pure. It is a profound paradox, perhaps the only response to death.
The same thing that is necessary for spiritual transcendence has the ability to create decadence and defilement. Purity and impurity are two sides of the same coin. We draw out of impurity (death) the essence of life. Life itself, balanced so delicately, is so vulnerable. Amidst such magnificence, such unique beauty, we are haunted by death. And perhaps, only through such losses and pain will we learn to appreciate what we have and to allow ourselves to become close to God, to allow God to embrace us.
What is pure can so easily become impure; but, as well, what is impure can become pure. In this world we struggle between that which is holy and that which is profane. The source of both is the same. It depends on us how it is used.
The Parah Adumah has in itself the possibility of purity and impurity, of life and death. We are redeemed – made worthwhile – by our ability to create a spiritual path, a place of Kedusha in our lives, but it depends of what we are willing to give up.
Then as now, surrounded by tragedies, the Parah Adumah comes to tell us not to lose hope. What we have lost, although so precious, is part of what is necessary in the process of purification. The victims of Arab and Palestinian terrorists are korbanot , and through them, through their sacrifice Kedusha is created in us and in the world. The one who is engaged in the process of creating purity becomes impure. As usual there is a higher purpose of which we must become conscious. And a price to be paid.
Amidst death, the Parah Adumah shines as a way of transcending death by creating a different reality. When life itself seems to have little meaning, when the burdens seem so difficult to bear, we are shown through the Parah Adumah the real essence of existence: to create holiness.
Dr. Moshe Dann is a former professor and presently a writer and journalist. Many of his articles have appeared in the Jerusalem Post. He lives in Jerusalem and can be reached at email@example.com