Like many young children, I watched my childhood heroes through innocent eyes. I watched a lot of sports growing up, and I became attached to certain athletes. These were the coolest people on earth! And I wished I could be just like them. As Chicagoans, we all wanted to “Be Like Mike” (Michael Jordan). It was only after growing up a bit that many of us learned more and more about the real people behind the heroes that we placed on pedestals. Once I learned about Michael Jordan’s personal life and his many human flaws, I could never go back to seeing him the same way.
This week, we read Parshat Ki Tissa and Parshat Parah. Ki Tissa tells the story of our gravest national sin: The Sin of the Golden Calf/het ha’egel/חטא העגל. And we add a special maftir (Num. 19:1-22), which describes the laws of the red heifer/parah aduma/פרה אדומה and how we can use it to purify ourselves of impurity. The Sfas Emes asks the question, why do we read Parshat Parah on Shabbat? He explains that seemingly, Shabbat helps this type of purification. In a midrash (Pesikta Rabbati 14), God tells Moses that unto Moses will the reasons/ta’amei/טעמי for the Parah be revealed, and to others, they will just be given the rule. Why does Moses get to see beyond the rule? Why is he given the secret information? The Sfas Emes teaches that there is a reason/ta’am/טעם for the Parah, but one who has tasted the taste of sin (she’ta’am ta’am het/שטעם טעם חטא) cannot grasp this taste/ta’am/טעם.* And the Parah is supposed to be a remedy for the sin. This is why Moses can know the reasons for Parah. He was not part of the sin. He was up on the mountain. And on Shabbat, we have a tradition that Moses returns to us the crowns that we received when we received the first tablets (for preceding action to understanding/שהקדימו נעשה לנשמה). Shabbat returns us to a state of innocence that allows us to see the world and understand it the way we once did. And on Shabbat, we can understand reasons for mitzvot, we can understand true aspects of reality that we don’t get during the week. Just look around the Shabbat table, the faces you see have a different look on them than during the rest of the week.
I believe this idea can work for us. For example, after eating something spicy, it is near impossible to taste something sweet without some kind of palate cleanser. Shabbat Parah is our palate cleanser. It gives us the opportunity to achieve, as Paul Ricoeur coined, a second naïveté. This Shabbat, try to allow yourself to go back to that time before you became jaded. Hear the parsha and see the world the way it once was. This Shabbat, we are given an opportunity; we are given a “do over”. Grab onto it and see what is possible.
*The word ta’am/טעם means both taste and reason. I believe The Sfas Emes to be playing with this word here.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.