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  • Andrew Roland

Parashat Shmini-Shabbat Parah

This Shabbat we arrived to the third of the special Shabbatot before Pesach, this time Shabbat Parah. The second scroll we read brought us the strange commandment of the parah adumah, the red heifer, the red cow, whose ashes mixed with “living water” purified those who had been in contact with death so that they could enter the Sanctuary, symbolic home of the Presence of G-d.

We read this commandment as part of our preparations for Pesach because in Pesach we all were obligated to go to the Sanctuary and sacrifice what it would become our main dish for the Seder.

This is a very strange commandment and one of the classic examples of a hukkah, a mitzvah without a logical explanation and that we are called to perform only out of faith and trust in the Torah and G-d. However, the mitzvah of the parah adumah, the red heifer, was a protest against the religions of the ancient world that glorified death. Death for the Egyptians was the realm of the spirits and the gods. The pyramids were places where, it was believed, the spirit of the dead Pharaoh ascended to heaven and joined the immortals.

One of the most striking things about the Tanakh , the Hebrew Bible, in general is its almost complete silence on life after death. Judaism believe in it and there are several ideas about in our tradition. We believe in the Olam Haba, the world to come, Gan Eden, the Paradise, and techyat hametim, the resurrection of the dead. Yet Tanakh speaks about these things rarely and not clearly. Why so?

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote that the reason is because too intense a focus on heaven is capable of justifying every kind of evil on earth. In ages past the Jews, and other deemed heretics, were burned at the stake to save their immortal souls, or so said their murderers. That by suffering now they were avoiding the sufferings of hell. Every injustice on Earth, every act of violence, even suicide bombings, can be theoretically defended on the grounds that true justice is reserved for life after death.

Against this idea, Judaism is opposed absolutely and we have been claiming for thousands of years: Life is sacred, death defiles. G-d is the G-d of life to be found only by consecrating life. Even King David was told by G-d that he would not be permitted to build the Temple because “you have shed much blood”.

Rabbi Sacks points out that Judaism is supremely a religion of life. That is the logic of the Torah’s principle that those who have had even the slightest contact with death need purification before they may enter sacred space. The rite of the red heifer delivered this message in the most dramatic possible way. It said, in effect, that everything that lives, even a heifer that never bore the yoke, even red the colour of blood which is the symbol of life; everything may one day turn to ash, but that ash must be dissolved in the waters of life. G-d lives in life, G-d must never be associated with death.

We are witnesses to despicable acts of terrorism in many places in the World, usually done by Islamic fanatics, but sadly there have been also cases done by Jewish fanatics. Too often in the past Jews were victims of people who practiced hate in the name of the G-d of love, cruelty in the name of the G-d of compassion and murder in the name of the G-d of life. It is shocking to the very depths of humanity that this still continues to this day.

That is the difference between a culture of life and one of death, and this has become the battle of our time, not only in Israel, but in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and sadly, also Europe. Whole societies are being torn to shreds by people practicing violence in the name of G-d.

Against this, we must never forget the simple truth that those who begin by practicing violence against their enemies end my committing it against their fellow believers. That’s the reason why the case last week of an Israeli soldier executing a completely neutralised Palestinian aggressor is so hard. Israel must use force to defend against those that would like to destroy it, but this case is not defence, but violence outside of normative rules of engagement. The verdict of history is that cultures that worship death, die, while those that sanctify life, live on. That is why Judaism survives while the great empires that sought its destruction were themselves destroyed.

Bila hamavet lanetzach, may G-d destroy death forever and the Lord G-d wipe away the tears from all faces”. May the G-d of life, in whose image we are, teach all humanity to serve Him by sanctifying life.

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