Parashat Shemini - Shabbat Para

כי אני ה׳ המעלה אתכם מארץ מצרים להיות לכם לאלהים – וראוי לכם שתעשו זה ההשתדלות להתקדש ולהיות קדושים, כדי להפיק רצוני, כי אמנם כוונתי כשהוצאתי אתכם מארץ מצרים היה כדי שתשיגו זה, שאהיה לכם לאלהים בלתי אמצעי, ושתהיו קדושים ונצחיים בהדמותכם אלי במדות ובמושכלות, ״כי קדוש אני״.

For I am Gd, who took you out of Egypt to become a Gd over you: It is fitting for you to put in the effort to sanctify yourselves and become sanctified, in order to enact my will. For indeed, this was my intention when I took you out of Egypt in order for you to achieve this level, that I will be for you a Gd without intermediary, and you will be holy and successful in imitating me in attribute and thought, for I am holy. — Sforno 11:45


This week, the Torah switches gears from a discussion of Temple service to the laws of kashrut and purity, a focus which will continue for the two weeks to come. The laws of purity are intricate and difficult in the extreme, and for all of them, no reason is given. Perhaps the pinnacle of ritual law is given in this week’s maftir, the para aduma or red heifer.

If one touches or is in the same room as a human corpse, there is a complicated ritual that must be performed. An entirely red, unblemished cow is burned together with hyssop and cedar and red wool. The ashes are then mixed with spring water, and a minuscule amount must be sprinkled on the third and seventh day of a seven day impurity period. All vessels in the house must go through the same ritual. The ritual is confusing and divergent from any other sacrifice or purification service in Judaism, and none of the details are explained.

The Pisikta d’Rav Kahana suggests that the Para Aduma is meant to atone for the Golden Calf. In its words, “Let the mother come and clean the filth of its bosom; let the cow atone for the calf”. But it does not really explain any association of the two events, beyond that one is a calf and the other a cow. What does a purification ritual have to do with achieving atonement for the sin of our ancestors?

Sforno explains that actually all the ritual law is an atonement for the Calf. Originally, Gd would dwell among the Jewish people, resting His presence on every individual Jewish soul. When we sinned through the Calf, Gd no longer wished to do so. Even after Moshe’s prayer, Gd still would not dwell among the individual Jews by default, but only in the Tabernacle separate from the individuals. However, Gd still desired to dwell among the individual Jews, so He created a way for people to sanctify themselves. Kashrut is a way to sanctify the physical desires for food. The laws of nidda and childbirth sanctify our desires and demonstrate commitment to raise the next generation in holiness. When people sanctify their behavior in order to come close to Gd, Gd is able to sanctify them and come close to them.

Sforno suggests that the things forbidden by these laws are detrimental to character and intelligence, but he never suggests how this would be so. Unlike other commentaries, he never expresses disdain for any non-kosher item, even pig, preferring instead to emphasize the importance of abstaining from them purely to fulfill Gd’s word. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The way that Gd dwells among the individual Jews is through their investment in following the intricate ritual laws governing their desires and daily life. When they structure their desires around holiness, they achieve Gd’s original purpose of having his presence rest not in the Mishkan, but in every Jew.

The Pharisees, from whom we all descend were called the Perushim, those who separate, because they took the laws of purity very seriously, even outside the Temple. The mark of a devout Pharisee was one who ate chullin in tahara, mundane food in purity. In contrast to the Sadducees, who associated ritual law with the priesthood and the Temple, we associate holiness with the individual and have it achievable everywhere.

Both the early Christians and the Muslims mocked the laws of the Para. The Christians saw in it the impossibility and arbitrariness of ritual, and they felt only purpose being to presage their own triumph over it. The Muslims have an entire chapter of the Qoran discussing the intricate details of the ritual and all the questions the Jews asked Moshe about it.  The early Muslim scholars scholars felt this demonstrated Jewish over-focus on the particulars. If the Jews had just been eager to sacrifice any cow for Gd, they would not have been given all the particulars, which they belabored Moshe over. But we say the details of the law and the refinement of character they promote is the entire point. Every detail we argue with, every particular we engage in brings us closer to Gd. Whenever we are meticulous in ritual, and make them the center of our lives, we are striving towards the ultimate atonement for the Golden Calf, to have our very beings be the sanctuary of Gd’s presence.