Parashat Shemini (Eighth)
Vayikra (Leviticus) 9:1–11:47
Maftir: Numbers 19:1–22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16–38
This week there is a special reading for what is called “Shabbat Parah”, which is the Shabbat before the “Shabbat HaChodesh” (Sabbath of the Month). The name “Shabbat Parah” comes from the special reading from Numbers 19:1–22, which we refer to as the “Maftir”; it speaks about the red cow also known as the Red Heifer.
In general, the main issue in this week’s readings is purification. The reason it is read now is that it is the Shabbat before the Month of Nissan, which is the month when we celebrate Pesach (Passover).
In our Haftarah we read the instructions that God, through Moses, gave to Aaron, his sons, the leaders of Israel, and the entire congregation of Israel regarding the offerings that they were to make:
Now it came about on the eighth day that Moses called Aaron and his sons and the elders of Israel; and he said to Aaron, “Take for yourself a calf, a bull, as a sin offering and a ram as a burnt offering, both without defect, and offer them before the LORD. Then you shall speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘Take a male goat as a sin offering, and a calf and a lamb, both one year old, without defect, as a burnt offering, and an ox and a ram for peace offerings, to sacrifice before the LORD, and a grain offering mixed with oil; for today the LORD will appear to you.”
Those instructions were given so that the LORD could appear to the children of Israel, which He did as we read in Leviticus 9:22–24:
Then Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them, and he stepped down after making the sin offering, the burnt offering, and the peace offerings. And Moses and Aaron went into the tent of meeting. When they came out and blessed the people, the glory of the LORD appeared to all the people. Then fire went out from the LORD and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell face downward.
I can only imagine the magnificence of that moment when the glory of the LORD appeared, and the fire went out from Him. I love the fact that when it happened, the people reacted with songs of praise and shouts of joy, and because they could not comprehend the holiness of the LORD, they fell on their faces.
Sadly, what follows this amazing account is the tragedy of Aaron’s sons offering a strange sacrifice to the LORD, which resulted in their deaths. While it may seem a bit harsh in our eyes, I believe this reminds us of the importance of paying close attention to what God instructs and asks of us (Leviticus 10:1–5).
In the “Maftir”, the special reading from Numbers 19:1–22, we read of the act of purification from the impurity of the dead. I believe that a key verse here is Numbers 19:18
And a clean person shall take hyssop and dip it in the water, and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the furnishings, on the persons who were there, and on the one who touched the bone or the one who was killed or the one who died naturally, or the grave.
The act of dipping the hyssop connects to the amazing story of redemption from Egypt, when the children of Israel needed to dip hyssop in blood and mark the doorpost of their dwelling places so that the angle of death would pass over them (Exodus 12:22).
The reality of bringing sin — impurity — into the camp is something that the children of Israel constantly dealt with. In fact, it resulted in God sending them into exile. However, Israel’s story is not their story but rather the story of a living God who is full of grace and acts for His own glory and namesake!
In our Haftarah, we read one of the most moving passages in Scripture, in my opinion. We see God promising to bring Israel, the Jewish people, back to the land of promise, and that He will purify them with the sprinkling of pure water. Most importantly, God promises that He will give them a new spirit, and will replace the heart of stone with a heart of flesh!
For I will take you from the nations, and gather you from all the lands; and I will bring you into your own land.Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put My Spirit within you and bring it about that you walk in My statutes, and are careful and follow My ordinances. And you will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God.
It all points to the ultimate purification of our souls, which God in His mercy will do for His own glory and namesake. Let us take the time this weekend as we prepare for the special month of Nissan, to reflect, repent, and be thankful for His redemption on our behalf!
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