The coincidence of reading parashat Ki Tisa and the special text for Shabbat Parah on the same Shabbat brings us, among other things, an embarrassment of cows.
The weekly parashah has brought us to the narrative of Moshe on the mountain with G-d, receiving the teaching that will serve as the document of the Covenant between G-d and the Israelites. Down below at the foot of the mountain, the Israelites are getting restless. Moshe has been gone so long, they complain to Aharon: “make us another god instead”. And Aharon, perhaps afraid of the crowd, perhaps to stall for time, commands the Israelites to bring him all their gold. (The women demur, and that is why Rosh Hodesh honors them, but that’s another story.) The men bring enough gold to shape a bull – small, but an ancient Canaanite image of power and fearsome strength.
G-d is annoyed. Moshe is distraught. Aharon is apologetic. The Israelites are punished, and repent of their deed. All goes on, but no quite like before. This is scar tissue in the relationship that the Israelites are developing with G-d; as in a marriage, hurtful words and betrayals cannot be completely healed, even when a couple manages to go on together. Scars do remain. And for many long years of Jewish tradition, the people of Israel has always been a bit embarrassed to be reminded of this sin, committed so soon after we promised our faithful commitment to G-d.
So reading the Shabbat Parah reading feels like having our noses rubbed in it. The entire reading is about how to turn a young heifer into a potion for ritual cleansing (ashes of heifer, a bit of herbs, cedar wood, some tola’at shani, the usual stuff). Why is this the special reading for the third special Shabbat before Pesakh?
The special reading and the haftarah both speak of the need for spiritual cleansing after a tough time. According to Pesakh halakhah, one who is ritually unclean cannot participate in the Seder. So these readings come as we begin to prepare, to remind us of the need for spiritual preparation as well as menus, guests, and deciding on this year’s haggadah.
It’s no mistake that we read of both embarrassing sins and the way toward cleansing in the same Shabbat, then. Our tradition is always reminding us that the first step toward healing is recognizing that one needs it. The first step toward overcoming a mistake, or a sin, or some other terrible thing that you’ve done (or that has been done to you) is to recognize that you could use some spiritual refocusing, some refreshment – a way of turning over a new leaf, so to speak.
The month of Pesakh, which begins very soon, is the first month of the year on the Jewish calendar. A good time to throw out the old and bring in the new: in the pantry, as we clean out hametz, and in our lives, as we greet spring with the hope that the world, and we ourselves, will find a sense of renewal, of newness, of spiritual cleansing from the old baggage and pain.
It is a custom to go to the mikveh before Pesakh or any holy day. I recommend it to you sometime during the month of Nisan, as you prepare for the 14th of the month, at twilight, and the Seder.
The mikveh is, after all, as Rabbi Akiba said, the hope of Israel (the word in Hebrew, mikveh, is very similar to the word for hope, tikvah). Immerse yourself in hope; allow yourself to believe in spring; realize that mistakes and embarrassments can be overcome through gemilut hasadim, acts of loving kindness.