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During the month of Adar (in which Purim takes place), we read four special sections of the Torah, in addition to the weekly Torah portion. Last week, we read the section called Parah, which speaks of the red heifer. The red heifer’s unique quality was the ability to purify someone who had been contaminated with the impurity associated with death (either through direct or indirect contact with a corpse). Although details of the process are understood, the overall commandment is the most opaque of all of the six hundred and thirteen mitzvoth. Apparently it comes from such a high spiritual source that it is not possible to fathom it with human intellect. This week, we come to another reading, called Chodesh (month), which gives us the details of declaring the new lunar month as it arrives. The first of the lunar months is Nissan, the month that we are about to enter. The sages said that first we must purify ourselves with the ashes of the red heifer, and then we can enter the new month, which contains the supremely high festival of Pesach (Passover).

But, when you look at these two commandments historically, they actually took place in the opposite order. During the first year of the Jews in the desert, the mishkan (tabernacle) was assembled on the first day of Nissan, and only on the second day did the Jews undergo the purification of the red heifer. In other words, historically the month of Nissan occurred first, followed by the purification process. That being the case, why do we switch around the order when we read the Torah during the course of the month of Adar?

The Jerusalem Talmud (Megila 3:5) gives as the reason that “the red heifer provides purification for all Jews.” That is, before the Jews could enter the Temple to offer the Pesach offering (during the month of Nissan), they needed to undergo purification. However, it’s not clear that every Jew needed to undergo the purification process. While anyone who wanted to go to Jerusalem during Pesach and offer the Pesach sacrifice needed to undergo purification, not every Jew was required to make the pilgrimage. Only a Jew who owned land in Israel was required to make the thrice-yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem, so theoretically one who owned no land could avoid the process altogether. Moreover, if the majority of the Jews in Israel were contaminated (a possible scenario, since this spiritual contamination could be transmitted through the atmosphere), then Jewish law stipulates that no-one need undergo purification. So, the explanation of the Jerusalem Talmud (that the red heifer purifies all the Jews before Pesach) itself seems to need explanation.

We’ll begin to understand by looking at what the Rambam says about the mitzvah of the red heifer. He says (sefer haMitzvoth, positive mitzvah number 113), “the commandment is to do the red heifer, so that its ashes will be ready at all times for whomever needs them in order to purify themselves from contamination of the dead.” Interestingly, the Rambam doesn’t say that the point of the ashes is to purify us. Instead, he chose to emphasize the availability of the ashes – that they should be constantly available to whomever desires to purify himself and thereby enter the Temple. Of course, he mentions the purpose of the red heifer – to purify – but he puts the emphasis on making the ashes available, rather than on the purification itself.

Every mitzvah of the Torah is expressed first and foremost in the upper spiritual worlds. Only afterward does it come into expression in the lower physical world. When it does, it expresses itself in a way that corresponds to its existence in the worlds above. For example, if in this world it is required that the ashes of the red heifer be available at all times, then in the spiritual realm as well, the red heifer represents something that is constant and available at all times. In our own avodat – spiritual service of G-d – the red heifer must also represent something that is constant and unchanging. It represents tshuva – return to G-d. Tshuva is a constant ongoing process. It requires us to think at all times about how we can get closer to the One above. The impurity that the red heifer comes to rectify is the result of our transgressions and sins. Our transgressions are what block and prevent us from contact with the One above. We need the ashes of the parah aduma – the red heifer – in order to overcome the sins and blockages.

One way to see that the red heifer is associated with tshuva is by considering the location where the purification process took place. The impure Jew and the one wishing to purify him would both stand outside of the Temple compound, but opposite its entrance. That is, they were required to stand outside of all the three areas where a pure Jew was allowed to stand in the Temple, and yet within eyesight of the entrance to the holiest part of the Temple – the heichal. That is because, having sinned, the impure Jew took himself outside of consideration for the closeness to G-d that came with entrance to the Temple mount. On the other hand, every Jew has a spark of holiness inside, and that spark can manifest itself at any time, so that even the Jew who is outside is nevertheless always looking “in.” He has a yetzer harah – an evil inclination – that leads him astray, but he also has a G-dly soul that wants to lead him back into contact with G-d. The location of the purification process exactly mirrored what takes place deep inside the soul of the Jew. He drifts astray, and his sins take him outside of the realm of holiness, but his G-dly soul yearns to “come back in” – to do tshuva and return to G-d. It’s the ashes of the red heifer that remove the obstacles and lead him back to cleaving to G-d. After he undergoes the purification process, he is allowed back into the Temple with all the other Jews.

You might think that it’s only the Jews who have sinned that need the ashes of the red heifer. But, the truth is that every Jew who ever lived probably needed the ashes of the red heifer in order to enter the Temple. Even a Jew who never sinned by transgressing the laws of the Torah, may not be as nullified to the will of G-d as he should be – and on his level, that is a sin. We are all likely to need the ashes of the red heifer, and that is why the Rambam emphasized that the ashes must be available at all times for whomever needs them. Every Jew has a G-dly soul that is always sending him messages, and when he hears the message and wants to go the Temple, to renew and strengthen his connection with the One above, the ashes must be ready to meet him. There should be no such thing, G-d forbid, as a Jew who wants to find his way back, but cannot because he is unable on his own to overcome his own past history. There has to be someone there to help him through the purification process, using the ashes of the red heifer while in eyesight of the holy of Holies. That is why the Rambam emphasizes that the commandment of the Red Heifer is that its ashes must be available at all times for whoever needs them.

And that is why the reading of Parah precedes that of Chodesh, even though historically they took place in the opposite order. In order to achieve the renewal and reconnection that is associated with the new month of Nissan, we must first undergo purification. As long as something is standing between ourselves and the One above, the month of Nissan cannot have a full effect upon us. With the arrival of spring and the festival of Pesach, we are meant to “spring” and jump to an entirely new and higher spiritual level. But, the only way to achieve that is by first undergoing purification with the ashes of the red heifer. We have to do tshuva and remove all the impurities, and then we’re ready for a whole new spiritual level, far beyond anything we previously experienced.

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 16, pp. 417-423 Rabbi David Sterne, Jerusalem Connection in the Old city of Jerusalem