Parshat Shemini coincides this year with Parshat Parah.
Parshat Parah is a very interesting experience in which you take the ashes of the Red Heifer (“Parah Adumah”) and you sprinkle them upon those individuals who are ritually impure in order to allow them to enjoy the experiences within the Temple. [Numbers 19:1-22]
But, paradoxically, those who are involved in the ritual of helping others become ritually impure! What is the deeper message of this procedure, which creates purity for those who are impure, only to render impure those involved in the purification process of others?
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, זצ”ל, once shared a story, the details of which I regrettably don’t recall, but essentially, there was an unbelievable student at the Yeshiva of Volozhin who the Rosh HaYeshiva hoped would remain in the yeshiva, learn with him, and become a great scholar.
However, the student refused, instead preferring to serve a community as its rabbi rather than spending the rest of his life in the yeshiva.
The Rosh HaYeshiva turned to him and said, “I don’t understand. You have an unbelievable opportunity here. Why are you giving it up?”
“I had a dream,” replied the student, “and in the dream, the Rosh HaYeshiva and I were in Gan Eden learning together. And indeed, to spend the next decades learning with the Rosh HaYeshiva would indeed be like being in Gan Eden.”
The Rosh HaYeshiva responded, “If that’s the case, why didn’t you agree to stay with me?”
“Because,” the student answered, “I also saw in the dream that the rest of the Jewish people were not in Gan Eden, but in Gehinom. And I decided that I would rather be there with the rest of the Jewish people than be with the Rosh HaYeshiva.”
This is a very important point, because the message behind the Parah Adumah is that often in our journey to help others, we ourselves can become sullied; we ourselves can go through difficult ordeals.
Our efforts to inspire others, to help them find their spiritual wings – wherever it takes them – requires both physical and spiritual sacrifice on our part.
And that’s okay, because that is the message of the Parah Adumah: helping others comes at some personal risk. But as human beings, and as Jews, it is our responsibility to finish the work of God.
Yes, in the process, we might get a little dirty; we might become ritually impure. But in the process, we are also inspired and empowered by the ability to help others.