As happens many times during a leap year, along with this week’s parsha, Shmini, we will also be reading Parshat Para found in the beginning of Parshat Chukat. Interestingly enough, these two Parshiot are connected not only by the calendar, but textually as well. Exactly why that is the case and why, if they are in fact organically linked together, are they separated into two separate Books of the Torah, will be the topic of our study this week.
The textual connection between the two Parshiot is quite apparent. All of Perek 11 in Sefer VaYikra, 47 Passukim in total (more than half of the 91 Passukim that make up Parshat Shmini), are devoted to the topic of Tuma and Tahara, ritual purity and impurity. The first half of Perek 11 approaches this issue from the perspective of the laws of Kashrut, defining which animals, poultry and seafood are considered to be pure and can therefore be consumed, and which are considered to be impure and are therefore forbidden. The second half of the chapter deals with how an individual becomes ritually impure through physical contact with a dead creature, and how one can return to a state of ritual purity. Moreover, the next several perakim in Sefer VaYikra (12-15), the Parshiot of Tazria and Mezora, continue in the very same vein of describing different forms of Tuma and Tahara.
As we know, Parshat Para describes the process of purification for an individual or for vessels which have come into contact with a dead body. The only difference between Perek 11 in VaYikra and Perek 19 in BaMidbar is the object of Tumah. While in Parshat Shmini the object is any living creature other than human beings, in Parshat Para the discussion is limited to the consequences of coming into contact with dead people and how a person becomes ritually pure after having been exposed to the tuma associated with a dead person.
In light of this clear connection it is hardly surprising that when Ralbag chose to present two lengthy overviews of the laws of Tuma and Tahara, he placed one in Parshat Shmini (page 301-319 in the Maaliyot edition), and the other in Parshat Chukat (246-253 in the Maaliyot edition). In both of these essays Ralbag notes that the gravity of the tuma is directly in proportion to the importance of the creature that has died. According to this approach, the fact that an individual does not become impure from contact with a dead fish but will become impure from contact with a dead rodent is simply a reflection of the fact that a mammal, even a relatively simple one, is superior to a fish. A human being, explains Ralbag, is infinitely more important than any other living creature. This can be seen from the simple fact that prior to death a person is vital and full of life. Moments later, when life disappears all that is left is a cadaver. What has changed, asks Ralbag? Physically, nothing at all. The body is still complete, undisturbed. The message is that what makes an individual special is not their physical body but their spirit, the neshama as it were. The tuma which is created by a dead person is so much greater, so much more primal, than the tuma created by the death of an animal precisely because the tuma is not a function of the dead body but rather of the spirit that has left the body. The spirit of a person is infinitely more significant than that of any animal and that importance is reflected in the tuma that is created when the spirit leaves the body. Thus, the tuma which is created by a dead person is so much more extensive than the tuma created by the death of any other living creature, and the steps to return to tahara are more extensive and elaborate as well.
All this of course just begs the question. If the laws of Tuma contracted by contact with a dead person and by extension the laws of purification as explained in the Parasha of Para Aduma are so fundamentally intertwined with the laws of Tumah and Tahara in Parshat Shmini, then why does Parshat Para not appear in what appears to be its natural place at the end of Parshat Shmini? Based on its content, the nineteenth chapter of Sefer BaMidbar, Parshat Para “belongs” at the very end of Parshat Shmini, and is the perfect segue between Perakim 11 and 12-15! Not only that, but the Gemara itself (Gittin 60 a-b) suggests that the laws of Para Aduma were given on the day that the Mishkan was first erected, meaning at the time when the events described at the beginning of Parshat Shmini took place. So it turns out that both thematically and chronologically Parshat Para belongs in Sefer VaYikra, between Parshat Shmini and Parshat Tazria-Metzora!
Rav Elchanan Samet points out that there are really two different questions here. The first is why did the Torah “remove” the section describing Para Aduma from its “natural” place at the end of Parshat Shmini, and the second question is why did the Torah specifically choose to place Parshat Para at the beginning of Parshat Chukat. Appropriately enough, he answers each of these questions in different places.
In his commentary to Parshat Tazria (Iyunim B’Parshat HaShavua, third series, page 85-87) Rav Samet answers the question as to why the Torah chose not to put Parshat Para in its “natural” place by using a similar idea to the approach that we attributed to Ralbag (Rav Samet himself does not quote Ralbag – I am not certain why). Rav Samet suggests that when alive, the difference between man and other creatures is enormous. Only man is endowed with Tzelem Elokim, the Divine image, which distinguishes us from other members of the animal kingdom. When an individual dies and the Divine image is lost not only do no obvious distinctions between man and animal remain, but it is the similarity that is apparent. Both are now reduced to only being sources of tuma. In order to maintain the distinction between man and animal, in order to emphasize the concept of Kavod HaMeit, respecting the deceased, the Torah consciously removes Parsha of Para Aduma and places it elsewhere.
But where should the Parsha be put? Rav Samet answers this question at the beginning of his commentary to Parshat Chukat (Iyun B’Parshat HaShavua first series page 214-218). In his analysis there, Rav Samet notes that Parshat Chukat represents the transition between the generation of Jews who had left Mizrayim and were destined to die in the desert and their children, the generation of Jews who would be privileged to enter into Eretz Yisrael. Hashem had been very clear – the generation that left Egypt was destined for eradication. They had become a symbol of failure and ultimately of death. It had taken thirty-eight years for this generation to die out and now the time had finally come for a new generation to move forward and fulfill the destiny of their parent’s generation. But just as it is necessary for an individual to purify herself after exposure to a corpse, so too must this new generation be purified after its extended exposure to the dying generation of Yotzai Mizrayim. As Rav Samet concludes, the spiritual character of this new generation is totally different from the spiritual character of their parent’s generation, and the Torah emphasizes that difference by inserting the Parsha of Para Aduma at precisely the transition point between those two generations.