April 14, 2024
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April 14, 2024
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This week is Parshat Parah, following the sequence of the four parshiyot (Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, Hachodesh) that are accomplished by the beginning of Nisan. What’s the significance of these four parshiyot that are read at this specific time of the year?

R’ Nosson Wachtfogel (Noam Hamussar, p. 135) explains that these four parshiyot are an intimation of the order in which the ultimate redemption will play out. And since the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah, 11a) says that the month of Nisan is when the redemption will occur, we read these four parshiyot—each which represent distinct concepts of self-improvement—in preparation for the upcoming geulah.

Parshat Parah consists of the laws related to the process of purifying one who was tamei, impure. Hence, this step in the process of preparing ourselves represents the underlying idea of becoming pure people.

How does one strive toward this? R’ Wachtfogel (ibid, p. 138) brings an incident to explain: once a student of an out-of-town yeshivah came to the yeshivah of Slabodka (which was known for stressing the works of mussar). A student from this yeshivah was approached by that out-of-town student, and during their conversation, the out-of-town student told him that in his yeshivah they were very careful with lashon hara; they developed many safeguards and precautions to ensure that they stay far away from such a prohibition. However, he related that in his yeshivah they did not study mussar (the work that focuses on enhancing and developing the internal state of a person). When the head of the Slabodka yeshivah (R’ Nosson Tzvi Finkel) heard this, he gave a parable to describe what this means: In a certain city there was a lavatory that was outside the city, and the people of the city decided to build a brand-new one in a different place. So they closed off the old one by putting boards and fences around it, but they didn’t actually clean it out. What happened? It wasn’t too long until from already at a far distance its stench could be palpable. So too does this reality exist in a person, who although may make many “fences” and safeguards (to protect himself from not violating any prohibitions) but does not study mussar.

In other words, one may be strict with halacha, keeping mitzvot, learning Torah, etc. But if he doesn’t work on “cleaning himself,” on straightening and purifying his internal and essential being—his mind and heart—then his core self may to some degree be undeveloped and unappealing. (The novelty in this story is that it seems to apply even when a person focuses on being careful with his fellow Jew.)

The Chovot Halevavot, a famous work written hundreds of years ago, consists of major foundational underpinnings in Judaism that pertain to one’s mind and heart; hence the title “Duties of the Heart.” He refers to such work as “the inner science, the light of the heart, and the shining of the soul,” positing that “the hinge and pillar of all deeds rests on the foundation of intention and hidden sentiment of the heart.”

Parshat Parah can thus come to teach that through the study of mussar, one can attain purity. Its importance is not underrated in the least. In fact, the Pesikta Rabbati (chp. 14) states that Hashem says, “I only busy Myself with the purity of Bnei Yisrael,” showing the overriding imperative of purity and thus of learning mussar.

If Parshat Parah fell out on Parshat Shemini, then perhaps we can suggest a connection. In our parsha of Shemini, we learn about a striking episode where Moshe Rabbeinu made a mistake. He forgot a certain halacha, and his brother Aharon reminded him of it. Upon which, as the Targum Yonatan (10:20) says, Moshe sent out a proclamation to Bnei Yisrael saying, “It was me who didn’t know of the halacha, and Aharon my brother reminded me of it.”

This seems to be quite a shocking act, one that might have potentially threatened the veracity of Moshe until now, for if he was mistaken here, then perhaps he was mistaken in other things. Further, since Moshe related the Torah to Bnei Yisrael, this would as well seem to be putting the truth of the Torah itself at stake. Moreover, it’s not like anyone other than Aharon and his sons knew about it, so why go out of his way to tell everyone?

R’ Wachtfogel (ibid, p. 146) says that Moshe wanted to teach Bnei Yisrael the attribute of “emet,” of truth, and that even someone like him can make a mistake. Based on this we can perhaps explain Moshe’s decision that Moshe knew the value of emet, and knew that when it comes to truth, there is no compromise. Indeed, since the bedrock of Torah is emet, and the Torah itself is personified as “Torat Emet,” Moshe’s demonstration was therefore fully consistent with the definition and spirit of Torah and what Torah represents, i.e., truth. Additionally, the “seal” of Hashem is truth (GM Shabbat 55b), and we know that Yaakov’s image is on Hashem’s “throne” (GM Chullin 91), and Yaakov’s distinct midda was emet. Therefore, emet is of the highest value and carries a responsibility that it be preached and spread, even in such a situation as Moshe’s. Hence, perhaps Moshe was in essence imparting to Bnei Yisrael that just like I made a mistake, but the middah of emet brings me to own up to it, to improve, and even spread that news, so too if you divert from the right path, the middah of emet can create in you a motivation to make a real comeback. That’s the power that emet carries.

Emet isn’t just in words, as we see from Moshe’s act. Rather, it’s a middah that engages the sincerity of one’s heart and the straightness of one’s mind. It’s an internal value that greatly affects the way one relates to Hashem and when doing mitzvot.

R’ Wachtfogel says one can reach emet through attaining purity (ibid). And as explained before, purity is carved out through the study of mussar. Hence, mussar is a preface to attaining purity, which in turn is a preface to attaining emet. Hence, the connection between Parah and Shemini.

When it comes to serving Hashem, Hashem wants the emet of our hearts—for our internal state to be in the right place. Perhaps then this can be one meaning of the famous pasuk “v’taher libeinu l’avdecha b’emet”—“and purify our hearts in order to serve You with truth.” For through purity one can reach emet and serve Hashem with emet. As the Chovot Halevavot says, we “should realize that the aim and value of the duties of the heart is that our exterior and interior be equal and consistent in the service of Hashem, so that the testimony of the heart, tongue and limbs be alike, and that they support and confirm each other instead of differing and contradicting each other.”


Binyamin Benji can be reached at [email protected].

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