In this week’s Torah study, we are blessed with a double portion of the Word of God with two Parashot (portions of Scripture) combined into one. The first, Vayakhel, repeats God’s instructions regarding the building of the Tabernacle as outlined in the previous study, Terumah.
When Moses assembles the people together, he underscores the fact that the message he is conveying to them is not his own, but Adonai’s. That message includes a set of instructions for living a Godly lifestyle:
“Then Moses assembled all the congregation of the sons of Israel, and said to them, ‘These are the things that the LORD has commanded you to do.’” (Exodus 35:1)
The Israelites, who entered into covenant with the God of Israel to do what He commanded, were not expected to only listen to the message—they were expected to follow through with it, applying it to their owns lives, turning from their former ways.
Likewise, we are not just to be hearers of the Word of God; we are also to do what He has commanded us.
“Prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves.” (James 1:22)
If we think that we know the Word of God just because we have heard it, read it or memorized it, then we deceive ourselves. We know the Word when we are doing it by walking in obedience to God’s commands. In the same way, Yeshua said, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)
In this Parashot, God lays out consequences for not obeying. For instance, He tells the people that the consequence for breaking the Sabbath would be death.
“For six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a Sabbath of complete rest to the LORD; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.” (Exodus 35:2)
Also in this week’s reading, the wilderness Mishkan (Sanctuary) is completed and anointed with the holy anointing oil. Aaron and his sons are initiated into the priesthood and a cloud appears over the Mishkan demonstrating the indwelling of God’s Presence. (Exodus 40)
Although we see that the priests were consecrated with anointing oil and washing with water in this Torah portion, a different ordinance was later given for the cleansing of the priests and those who were found unclean, such as the persons who encountered the dead, which were many during the plague of Numbers 16:46–50.
This ordinance is the sacrifice of the Red Heifer.
Shabbat Parah: the Sabbath of the Red Heifer
“Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying, ‘This is the statute of the law which the LORD has commanded, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel that they bring you an unblemished red heifer [parah adumah] in which is no defect and on which a yoke has never been placed. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest, and it shall be brought outside the camp and be slaughtered in his presence.”’” (Numbers 19:1–3)
Parasha Vayekhel–Pekudei falls on the Sabbath before Shabbat HaChodesh (the Shabbat that falls on or before the first of Nissan, or head of months) in which we celebrate the Passover.
In preparation for Passover, therefore, a special portion of Scripture from Numbers 19:1–22 is added today. It describes the sacrifice of the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer).
This Sabbath, therefore, is called Shabbat Parah (Sabbath of the Red Heifer). Shabbat Parah always occurs on the Sabbath after Purim and begins the formal preparations of the Passover (which falls Nissan 15–22 on the Jewish calendar, which is April 3–April 11 this year).
The sacrifice of the red heifer sacrifice is an essential part of the Temple services.
Through it the Jewish priests (cohanim) and the Jewish People purify themselves before the festival of Passover. The Red Heifer brings about the ritual purity (tahor) necessary for sacrificing the Paschal lamb.
Anyone who had been defiled through contact with the dead and had not been cleansed with the sprinkling of the waters of purification containing the ashes of the Red Heifer would be disqualified from celebrating the Passover and cut off from the community of Israel:
“But the man who is unclean and does not purify himself from uncleanness, that person shall be cut off from the midst of the assembly, because he has defiled the sanctuary of the LORD; the water for impurity has not been sprinkled on him, he is unclean.” (Numbers 19:20)
One of the great enigmas of this ceremony is that while these waters of purification make the defiled person clean, the one performing the ritual becomes unclean until evening.