Being Together in Times of Isolation
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
This week we have a special Shabbat named Parah, literally the Sabbath of the Red Heifer. It occurs on the Shabbat after Purim or, similarly, the Shabbat prior to Shabbat Mevarchim of the month of Nisan. This is the Shabbat in which we announce that the beginning of the Hebrew month of Nissan will occur that coming week. In addition to the regular parasha for the week (Ki Tisa, this year), we read a maftir reading from a second Torah scroll, Numbers 19:1-22. This text deals with the red heifer whose ashes were combined with water to ritually purify anyone who had been in contact with a dead person. In ancient times, when sacrifices were still observed at the Temple of Jerusalem, only people who were pure could eat from the Passover sacrifice. A corpse was considered to be the maximum source of ritual impurity. Through the ritual of the “red heifer” people were able to purify themselves in order to be ritually apt to eat from the Passover sacrifice. Shabbat Parah was like a public announcement right before Pesach was approaching, to remind anyone who may have become impure to purify themselves before making the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
In light of what we are experiencing nowadays, as the coronavirus (COVID-19) is spreading around the globe, it is hard not to try to make connections between the content of the Shabbat Parah special reading to our own situation. First of all, we should note that the Torah is dealing with ritual impurity, not with medical diseases. In addition, purification in the Torah is a ritual process, not a medical procedure. Therefore, I believe any comparison is very loose.
Still, there is one lesson I would like to emphasize. The Torah provides us with a solution for those who were ritually impure and still wanted to participate in the communal Passover sacrifice, one of the most important and popular events of Biblical times. The Torah considers Pesach such a significant holiday, that it also provides ritually impure people with a make-up day a month after Passover (Numbers 9:10-11)!
In times of social isolation and quarantine, it is important to learn from the Torah a lesson about finding creative ways to not completely isolate ourselves. While we need to take this health crisis very seriously and responsibly by strictly following the health authority’s guidance, we still need to find creative ways to stay connected to our family and friends, and also to our Jewish tradition including its rituals and customs. Like the Torah did for those ritually impure but still eager to partake of the Passover sacrifice, we will have to learn how to continue sharing our lives and our values with those around us. Only together we will overcome this pandemic, even if we need to redefine the meaning of together!