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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Parashat Ki Tisa - the Haftara

Parashat Ki Tisa – the Haftara
Ezekiel 36:16 – 36:38
Reading date: 14th March 2009 – 18th Adar 5769

Our highlighted Haftara text
“I will sprinkle cleansing waters upon you, and you shall be cleansed of all your impurities; and I will cleanse you of all your idols.” Ezekiel 36: 25

We can undo our failings by using the same strengths for good.
Parashat Ki Tisa interrupts the description of the Mishkan's construction with the episode of the Golden (or Molten) Calf and the breaking of the first tablets. Although this year a special Haftara is read (see below), the regular Haftara is taken from the first book of Kings (18:1-39; Sephardim begin on verse 20). In both texts, the Israelites betray YHVH, and the leader (Moses/Elijah) must intercede to restore true worship and mend the breached covenant between YHVH and the community.

Again this week, the special additional reading describing the ritual of the Red Heifer (Numbers 19:1-22) gives this Shabbat its special name: ‘Shabbat Parah’. The special Haftara from Ezekiel (36:16-38; Sephardim conclude with verse 36), like the Maftir (concluding) portion deal with the theme of purification. Shabbat Parah reminded the community of Israel that the Pesach sacrifice should be performed in a state of ritual purity.

Elijah, the most famous of the early prophets, lived during the reign of northern Israel's King Ahab (9th century B.C.E). Ahab's wife from Tyre, Jezebel, supported Baal worship and Elijah battled this foreign influence. According to II Kings (2:11), Elijah did not die, but was carried to heaven in a chariot of fire. Jewish folklore depicts Elijah as a beggar or a poor wanderer, appearing (and disappearing) mysteriously and helping the poor.

At Havdalah, the ceremony marking the conclusion of Shabbat we sing, 'Eliyahu Hanavi, Eliyahu hatishbi...' According to tradition, Elijah will come to resolve Talmudic disputes (at the Passover Seder- to tell us whether to drink the fifth 'Elijah's Cup' or not), and will herald the Messianic Age. He is thought to be present at every ‘brit’, since each newborn may be the one to help bring the Messiah.

The regular Haftara for Ki Tisa is the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal and Asherah on Mount Carmel. Their worship of Baal parallels the Israelites' worship of the Golden Calf. But this year, the special Shabbat of the Red Heifer – ‘Shabbat Parah’, (literally the Shabbat of the Cow) falls on the week we read ‘Egel Hazahav’ (The Golden Calf) and instead of the passage from the book of II Kings, we read from the prophet Ezekiel.

The ‘Parah Adumah’ (Red Heifer) and ‘Egel Hazahav’! Two cows on one Shabbat! How are these two cows connected? It seems that the cows are complete opposites. The Golden Calf is about idolatry; the Red Heifer is about purification. The Golden Calf represents completely abandoning YHVH (immediately after hearing the Ten Commandments and being freed from Egypt and witnessing the destruction of the Egyptians at the Sea of Reeds). The Red Heifer, by contrast, represents full obedience to YHVH, since this mitzvah is identified as a 'chok' that is, those laws that can't be explained rationally or logically. Performance of the mitzvah of the Red Heifer shows complete submission and allegiance to YHVH.

Maimonides suggests that most of the ‘chukkim’, the reasons of which are unknown to us, serve as a fence against idolatry (Guide 3:49). So does the Red Heifer come to correct the sin of the Golden Calf? The use of the red heifer in the mysterious ceremony of purification atoning for the sin of idolatry is supported by the Haftara. The special Haftara from Ezekiel describes sprinkling water (like in the ceremony of the ashes of the Red Heifer) to "cleanse you of all your idols." The Midrash, in fact, makes the connection explicit: A maid's child once dirtied the royal palace. Said the king: "Let his mother come and clean up her child's filth." By the same token, YHVH says: "Let the Heifer atone for the deed of the Calf" (Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 8). It is precisely because the two incidents are opposites that one can 'fix' the other.

How can one event 'atone' for another? Can one event 'undo' another? In our Parasha, cow undoes cow. In Jewish tradition, the ‘get’ (Jewish divorce document) annuls the ‘Ketubah’ (marriage contract). ‘Teshuvah’ (repentance) undoes ‘chet’ (sin). This is a sound principle familiar from child rearing. Better than a punishment- the consequence should repair the wrongdoing. When such a 'punishment' fits the crime, the 'sentence' for littering, for example, should be cleaning up the litter in the area.

There are two approaches to atonement. One is the 'jail' model: we regret our actions, and we pay our debt to society. Then we emerge from jail a 'new person,' often blotting out the memory of our incarceration. We try and distance ourselves from our inclinations to do wrong. But the second model uses the 'judo' approach, where the strength or speed of the opponent is used to our advantage! The bigger they are, the harder they fall! The Rabbis find it curious that the Israelites were indiscriminate; they contributed as eagerly to build the Golden Calf as they did to build the Mishkan. To sin, they gave their gold; to build the sanctuary, they gave their gold. In other words, their generosity could be channeled for holiness just as it had been used for turning away from YHVH.

Similarly, the example of the ‘Parah Adumah’ (Red Heifer) suggests that we can undo our failings by using the very same strengths for good. This would be like a dishonest stockbroker who does ‘teshuvah’ by using his talents to raise money to support charities instead of for illicit financial dealings. Like the ‘Parah Adumah’, let us channel our inclination and/or 'talents' for misdeeds for a higher purpose.

Shabbat Shalom

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