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Family Separation and Parah Adumah

June 28, 2018

My inbox has been filled this past week with emails from friends and colleagues – Rabbis wondering whether it is okay to speak about the latest development of families being separated at the US border. Part of the difficulty is the more general question of whether it is ever acceptable to speak about politics from the pulpit. Others question whether this is a political issue or one a more basic moral/ethical question. Here’s what I came up with…

The parsha contains two details that bother everyone. The first, is the opening chapter describing the ritual of the פרה אדומה (Red Heifer), which is recognized by our Rabbis as being one of the greatest mysteries in the Torah.

When someone comes in contact with a corpse and as a result is in a state of טומאה (impurity) they must go through a purification process that involves sprinkling over them the ashes of a red heifer mixed with some other ingredients followed by immersion in the mikvah. Why this is effective is anyone’s guess. A second mysterious detail associated with this ritual is that while it achieve the desired effect of being מטהר את הטמאים (purifying those who are impure), at the same time it is מטמט את הטהורים it renders the person who sprinkles the waters over the defiled individual impure.

The second troubling passage in our Parsha is the punishment of Moshe and Aharon so that they may not enter the land of Israel. Again, our sense of justice is questioned. Moshe and Aharon were instructed to speak to a rock in order to provide water for the people. They hit the rock instead. To be certain, they were wrong and they did not follow instructions, but the punishment seems rather excessive for a seeming misdemeanor.

I’d like to offer a few approaches to these great mysteries in light of current events.

When it comes to the  פרה אדומה (Parah Adumah), I heard a fascinating analysis on a podcast. The podcast is called ParshahLab and it features Rabbi David Fohrman, whose approach to Tanach is AMAZING. The truth is, I’ve been looking to present one of his ideas as a way of introducing the podcast and his website – alephbeta academy ( – to those who are not familiar with his work. This week the podcast featured an idea of one of the staff writers, Rabbi Daniel Loewenstein, which he develops along with Rabbi Fohrman.

The key detail that they focus on is the Torah’s description of the liquid mixture containing the ashes of the Red Heifer. In Bamidbar 19:9 we read:

(ט) וְאָסַ֣ף ׀ אִ֣ישׁ טָה֗וֹר אֵ֚ת אֵ֣פֶר הַפָּרָ֔ה וְהִנִּ֛יחַ מִח֥וּץ לַֽמַּחֲנֶ֖ה בְּמָק֣וֹם טָה֑וֹר וְ֠הָיְתָה לַעֲדַ֨ת בְּנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֧ל לְמִשְׁמֶ֛רֶת לְמֵ֥י נִדָּ֖ה חַטָּ֥את הִֽוא׃

(9) A man who is clean shall gather up the ashes of the cow and deposit them outside the camp in a clean place, to be kept for water of lustration for the Israelite community. It is for cleansing.

It is called מי נדה (Mei Nidah).  Don’t even bother trying to understand the English translation “water of lustration.” We know that נדה refers to a woman who is menstruating. But what does that have to do with our purification ritual?

Rashi, following Rav Sa’adiah Gaon says that נדה means sprinkling, either because that is its meaning in Aramaic (Torat Chayim footnote on R. Sa’adiah Gaon 19:9) or because we find similar usage later in Tanach.

(ב) למי נדה. לְמֵי הַזָּיָה, כְּמוֹ “וַיַּדּוּ אֶבֶן בִּי” (איכה ג’), “לְיַדּוֹת אֶת קַרְנוֹת הַגּוֹיִם” (זכריה ב’), לְשׁוֹן זְרִיקָה:

(2) למי נדה FOR WATERS OF נדה — i.e. for waters of sprinkling (or casting); similar are, (Lamentations 3:53) “and they cast (וידו) a stone upon me”; (Zechariah 2:4) “to cast down (לידות) the horns of the nations”, both of which are expressions denoting “casting”.

Rabbis Loewenstein and Fohrman turn our attention back in Tanach to the first time the word נדה (or its root) appears.  It first appears in the aftermath of the story of קין והבל (Cain and Abel) in Breishit 4. Cain’s punishment is (Breishit 4:10-12):

(י) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ (יא) וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃ (יב) כִּ֤י תַֽעֲבֹד֙ אֶת־הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה לֹֽא־תֹסֵ֥ף תֵּת־כֹּחָ֖הּ לָ֑ךְ נָ֥ע וָנָ֖ד תִּֽהְיֶ֥ה בָאָֽרֶץ

Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! (11) Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand. (12) If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer on earth.”

To drive the point home, this episode ends with us being told that Cain settles in the land of Nod (4:16) (same root as Nidah/Nad)

(טז) וַיֵּ֥צֵא קַ֖יִן מִלִּפְנֵ֣י ה’ וַיֵּ֥שֶׁב בְּאֶֽרֶץ־נ֖וֹד קִדְמַת־עֵֽדֶן׃

Cain is punished to be a wanderer, or more precisely to be DISTANT from his current place.

They further point out that once our attention is focused on this story, another key parallel emerges. The פרה אדומה (Red Heifer) is spelled חסר, without the ו (letter vav).  This spelling can be vocalized as אדמה (land/earth). קין, we are told is וְקַ֕יִן הָיָ֖ה עֹבֵ֥ד אֲדָמָֽה׃ Cain worked the ground (Gen. 4:2). Further in the story we find:

(י) וַיֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃ (יא) וְעַתָּ֖ה אָר֣וּר אָ֑תָּה מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר פָּצְתָ֣ה אֶת־פִּ֔יהָ לָקַ֛חַת אֶת־דְּמֵ֥י אָחִ֖יךָ מִיָּדֶֽךָ׃

Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground! Therefore, you shall be more cursed than the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

How does this help us to understand the פרה אדומה (Red Heifer)? The suggestion made by Rabbis Fohrman and Loewenstein is that the ritual of the Parah Adumah is supposed to take us back to the shocking story of Cain murdering Abel. Not only is it the first act of murder in the Torah, it is the first recorded instance of death!

Death is supposed to be shocking. It should not be easily accepted or understood. One of the more troubling details in Cain’s response to Hashem is how un-shocked he is by his own actions. Not only is Cain distanced from the physical place he had been, but he is distanced from his own true self.

Parah Adumah brings us back to Cain and Able as a corrective. Cain wasn’t shocked and dismayed by his encounter with death. But WE should be deeply affected when we encounter death. פרה אדומה is illogical because there is no good way to make sense of death when we encounter it.   It renders the individual who sprinkles the ashes impure because he faces the greatest danger of becoming desensitized to death – he is involved with this ritual all the time, and thus constantly coming into contact with death.

If Parah Adumah was meant to be a wake-up call or splash of cold water to ensure that we remain properly sensitized and shocked by encounters with death, then I would suggest that the whole question of family separation serves as a modern day Parah Adumah – no matter where one stands politically, no matter one’s position on immigration policies – the idea of separating parent from child crosses a red line. This is unacceptable.

Which brings me to the second mystery of our Parsha – why were Moshe and Aharon given such a harsh punishment for hitting the rock instead of speaking to it?

When Hashem conveys the punishment, He tells them (Bamidbar 20:12):

(יב) וַיֹּ֣אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֣ה וְאֶֽל־אַהֲרֹן֒ יַ֚עַן לֹא־הֶאֱמַנְתֶּ֣ם בִּ֔י לְהַ֨קְדִּישֵׁ֔נִי לְעֵינֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לָכֵ֗ן לֹ֤א תָבִ֙יאוּ֙ אֶת־הַקָּהָ֣ל הַזֶּ֔ה אֶל־הָאָ֖רֶץ אֲשֶׁר־נָתַ֥תִּי לָהֶֽם׃

But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”

Rashi explains:

ב) להקדישני. שֶׁאִלּוּ דִּבַּרְתֶּם אֶל הַסֶּלַע וְהוֹצִיא, הָיִיתִי מְקֻדָּשׁ לְעֵינֵי הָעֵדָה, וְאוֹמְרִים מַה סֶּלַע זֶה שֶׁאֵינוֹ מְדַבֵּר וְאֵינוֹ שׁוֹמֵעַ וְאֵינוֹ צָרִיךְ לְפַרְנָסָה, מְקַיֵּם דִּבּוּרוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם, קַל וָחוׂמֶר אָנוּ:

להקדישני TO SANCTIFY ME — For had you spoken to the rock and it had brought forth water I would have been sanctified before the whole congregation, for they would have said: What is the case with this rock which cannot speak and cannot hear and needs no maintenance? It fulfils the bidding of the Omnipresent God! How much more should we do so?

Rav Aharon Lichtenstein z”l expounds:

Contrary to our intuitive sense that there must be something wrong with what Moshe and Aharon did, the verse states simply and explicitly that the sin is grounded in what they did not do…

Sometimes, failure to act is far more serious than negative action. We must do all that we can so that when we come before the Heavenly Court, we can answer in the affirmative: Yes.

Rav Yakov Medan, one of the current Rashei Yeshiva at Yeshivat Har Etzion says that the key to understanding it occurs before Hashem even mentions the stick or the rock. When B’nei Yisrael first come to complain, how did Moshe and Aharon respond?

וַיָּבֹא֩ מֹשֶׁ֨ה וְאַהֲרֹ֜ן מִפְּנֵ֣י הַקָּהָ֗ל אֶל־פֶּ֙תַח֙ אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֔ד וַֽיִּפְּל֖וּ עַל־פְּנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיֵּרָ֥א כְבוֹד־יְהוָ֖ה אֲלֵיהֶֽם׃ (פ)

Moses and Aaron came away from the congregation to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, and fell on their faces. The Presence of the LORD appeared to them,

Moshe, the greatest of all prophets, failed to exercise proper leadership in this instance. Instead of addressing the challenge, he falls upon his face, in a gesture of helplessness and despair….

Again, to apply the lesson to our current day situation, when we experience the Parah Adumah moments in life; When we are shocked and outraged by what we see around us, we cannot sit and do nothing about it. Moshe, our greatest prophet and leader faced his biggest punishment because of his failure to act.

With President Trump’s signing the executive order, things have taken a turn for the better. But children are still separated from their parents and many questions remain up in the air. I can’t tell you what the proper actions are, but if you are upset by this, then there has to be action as well – attending a rally, donating money, calling the offices of our representatives, etc.

Wishing everyone a peaceful Shabbat. Shabat Shalom.



From → Parsha, Uncategorized

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