The Story of the Parah Adumah

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Elliot Dine

Commentators discuss two overarching difficulties that frame Sefer Bimidbar, and these two difficulties manifest themselves in the section dealing with the laws of the Parah Adumah in Parashat Chukat. The first difficulty arises from the laws presented in Sefer Bimidbar, which seem to just represent a sampling of different halakhot put together with no organizing principle. Ramban writes in the introduction to his commentary on this Sefer,

ואין בספר הזה מצות נוהגת לדורות, זולתי קצת מצות

בעניני הקרבנות שהתחיל בהן בספר הכהנים ולא נשלם ביאורן שם והשלימן בספר הזה

And this book contains no commandment that are practiced in future generations except for a few commandments dealing with issues of sacrifices that was started in the book of Leviticus, but whose explanation was not completed there and thus are completed within this book.

Ramban makes clear that he considers the laws of the Parah Adumah to further supplement the laws of Leviticus stating, “והפרשה הזאת תשלום תורת כהנים (And this section [on the Parah Adumah] fills in from the book of Leviticus),” but doesn’t answer the obvious follow up question of why the Torah places the section here. It would make much more sense to place the section detailing a priest’s actions to purify someone who has just come into contact dead body with sections dealing with a priest’s actions to purify someone who has just experienced Tzora’at in Sefer Vayikra rather than follow a section detailing the laws of Terumah as it does here in Sefer Bimidbar.

The second difficulty that bothers medieval and contemporary commentators regards what happened during the forty years in the desert; namely why are we not told of any events that occur between the beginning of the second and the start of the fortieth year in the desert. Following a plain reading of the text that question becomes fully realized looking at the context of the section on the Parah Adumah, as the Torah moves from discussing Korah’s rebellion in the second year to discussing the death of Miriam at the start of the fortieth. Why are the rituals associated with the Parah Adumah the only bridge between the second and fortieth years?

The single answer to these two questions- why are the laws of Parah Adumah included in Sefer Bimidbar and how can they be the only bridge between the second and fortieth year in the desert- becomes clear when looking at the other laws that arise in this narrative stage of Sefer Bimidbar. The Israelites receive laws dealing with what happens in the land of Israel right after the sin of spies to reassure and comfort the Israelites that one day their nation will reach the land of Israel. The Israelites then receive laws after Korah’s rebellion that further enumerate he differences between priest and Israelite and help define the proper relationship of priest and people. The laws given in this section of Sefer Bimidbar act as responses to the narratives.

So too with the law of the Parah Adumah. But what narrative is it responding to? It is responding to the story of the 40 years where there is only one event that matters- the death of a generation. The laws discussing the proper way to deal with death come here in Sefer Bimidbar to respond to the narrative central to the 40 years, the story of a generation dying off in a desert. Parah Adumah represents the ultimate ritual that we cannot understand, yet it still tells an important story. As we continue to think about and discuss the halakhic issues of our time we must remember not to lose sight of the events that shape our laws and elevate their purpose.

Elliot Dine (SBM 2010) hails from Silver Spring, MD and is excited to return to SBM this summer before starting a PhD program in molecular biology in the fall.


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