Sheklaim, Zachor, Parah & Hachodesh

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jay Spero


Four Parshiyos

Parshas Sheklaim, Zachor, Parah & Hachodesh

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Between now and Pesach are four special weeks, when, besides the regular Torah portion, several verses are read from a different portion. These four Torah portions are: Parshas Shekalim, Zachor, Parah and Hachodesh. 

Shekalim is the half shekel that each Jew was required to give for communal offerings in the Temple (Shemos 30:11). Zachor is the commandment to wipe out the remembrance of Amalek (Devarim 25:17). Parah is the red heifer (Bamidbar 19:1), and Hachodesh is the commandment of the Jews to bring in the new moon (Exodus 12:1). 

The purpose of mitzvos (commandments) is to bring a person closer to Hashem. There are certain mitzvos that we are unable to perform because we are in exile without a Temple. 

This leads to a major difficulty, since the essence of certain mitzvos is such that their performance is crucial to our growth. 

For this reason, the sages decreed that during four weeks of the year the Torah portions relating to those commandments be read, and through engrossing ourselves in the concept of these mitzvos, we can still achieve the desired spiritual growth that would normally come through performing them. 

The first of these portions is Shekalim, the mitzva for each Jew to give half a shekel. What was the motive behind this mitzva? As we have learnt in previous weeks, the reason behind the Tabernacle was to have a place for the Shechina (Divine Presence) to reside. This ideal place would be built and maintained by the contributions of the Jewish people. Their giving of the money was more than just that. It was also symbolic of their desire to have an active role in Hashem's presence on earth. 

The next special portion is Zachor - the commandment to wipe out Amalek. We may not know who Amalek is physically today, but the commandment of wiping out the nation of Amalek still pertains. The idea is to destroy the Amalek within ourselves. 

What did Amalek stand for? The numerical equivalent of the Hebrew word Amalek is the same as the numerical value of the word safek - doubt. Amalek stands for doubt and negativity. We are thus given the message to wipe out the doubt and negativity in our own hearts, and to embrace the positive. Embracing the positive - both in ourselves and in others - enables us to better see the good in the world, and this in turn helps us, by our giving, to better imitate Hashem. 

The next portion is Parah. One of the most difficult mitzvos in the Torah is the mitzva of Parah Adumah (literally the red cow). This mitzva was performed by taking the ashes of the a slaughtered red cow (to find a red cow was extremely rare) and sprinkle these ashes on people who had come into contact with a dead body. This mitzva appears to make no sense, yet when it was given the Jewish people embraced it.

Rabbi Emmanuel Feldman explains that the underlying sin of the golden calf was the inability of the Jewish people to accept something they could not comprehend rationally. The concept they were unable to comprehend was that there could be a Hashem without intermediaries. This is why they built the golden calf. Therefore Hashem gave them a law involving the same animal they had previously sinned with and similarly a concept that was difficult for them to understand. But this time they got it right. The Children of Israel were able to overcome their lack of understanding and fulfill the commandment. The Midrash Tanchuma explains that it is like a child who makes a mess (the golden calf) and the mother who cleans it (the red cow). This is the proper way of achieving atonement - to face a  situation similar to that where one failed and, this time, to prevail.

Today, there are no red cows (may we find one soon and see the Temple rebuilt), yet we can learn an important lesson from this. Although some of the commandments do not seem to make sense, this is due to our limited perception.

The last of the four portions is Hachodesh (literally "the month"). The first commandment given to the Jewish people as a whole was the mitzva of establishing the new moon.

How was this mitzva performed, and why was it accorded such honor to be the first mitzva given? 

The Jewish calendar is a lunar one. Every month witnesses would give testimony to determine if the month was full, i.e. the new moon appeared after thirty days, or was not full, i.e. the new moon appeared after twenty-nine days. However, using this system leads to a problem, because the Jewish holidays had to be aligned with the proper season (for example, Pesach must fall out in the spring), and the lunar calendar is only 354 days, while the celestial seasons follow a solar calendar. To alleviate this problem, every few years another month is added. The question is, why go through all this trouble with testimony and the necessity to add another month every couple of years?  Why not simply use a solar calendar?

We learn two concepts from such a system. One is that we have an active relationship with time. We have a hand in determining when the holidays fall out. This is a microcosm of our relationship to the world and how our deeds affect it. The second concept is the comparison of the Jewish nation to the moon. Much like the Jewish people, sometimes the moon waxes bright and full, and sometimes it is a mere sliver. Yet, it never disappears - just like the Jewish people. 

Rabbi Jay Spero is the rabbi of the Saranac Synagogue in Buffalo.

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