I recently had the honor of being a pallbearer at a family funeral. As the coffin slid out of the hearse over my fingers, I felt as if I myself were between worlds. I was cognizant of the awesome responsibility of the moment, and had a very physical sense that I was carrying what was only the shell of one who had once been a vibrant woman. Simultaneously I was thinking about the very mundane: I hope my shoe doesn’t get caught in the mud, be careful not to step on my cousin’s toes…. I was at once in the spiritual and physical realms, experiencing the otherworldly and the mundane.
This tension is reflected in the interplay between the three different Torah portions we read this week. First we read Vayakhel-Pekeudei, in which we get yet another detailed account of all of the different building materials, fabrics, and sacred objects of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, as well as the priestly garments. Then from a second Torah scroll we read the seemingly esoteric laws of the red heifer (Numbers 19:1-22), since this week is Shabbat Parah (“Parah” means “cow”), the third of the special readings before Passover. The laws pertain to the purification rite that needed to be performed when a person came in contact with a dead body. It is a rite of ritual purification using the ashes of a special red heifer. Ironically, those involved in the purification ritual themselves became ritually impure
The standard reason given for the reading of the red cow at this time of year is that the Jewish people had to be ritually pure in order to offer the Passover sacrifice, whose season is fast approaching. In terms of the order of Torah readings, the parah adumah can also be seen as atonement for last week’s Golden Calf episode, with a cow now being used for holy purposes.
I would like to suggest another important connection between the Torah readings. On the one hand, we are literally inundated in Vayakhel-Pekeudei with the details of the Mishkan, ritual objects including the menorah, and the priestly garments-again, having read about them already in the preceeding portions of Terumah and Tetzaveh. We learn about what types of wood must be used as building materials, how long the beams should be, what types and colors of fabric to use for the covers, how to mold the metal for the menorah, what stones must be used on the breastplate of the High Priest.
On the other hand, in the reading for Shabbat Parah we are confronted with the grand themes of life and death, and ritual purity and impurity, themes that are seemingly far removed from the mundane details of building materials and clothing. This juxtaposition reminds us that we must learn how to navigate living in both “worlds” constantly.
We can exist neither solely in the mundane day-to-day, nor exclusively in the transcendent. We don’t get to choose in what framework we are operating at any given moment. No matter how we may try to compartmentalize our lives, life continues to unfold around us, on both levels. Even at a time of deep spiritual reflection, there are the details that bring us back into the everyday, as when I was carrying the casket. The challenge is how to continue dealing with the details while coping with the transcendent and, equally challenging, how to connect to the transcendent while going through the mundane activities of our lives. The latter is reflected in the following commentary quoted in Iturei Torah:
“And Moses blessed them (39:43): [What was the blessing?] Moses said to them: ‘May it be God’s will that His Shekhinah ““ His Presence ““ dwell on all the work of your hands’ (Rashi). At the time the Sanctuary had been erected, when the Shekhinah had come down upon the Sanctuary, the people were at the height of spiritual elevation. Moses blessed them that the Shekhinah would accompany them not only when they were involved in spiritual matters, but also when they would have to engage in the day-to-day ““ ‘the work of your hands.'”
We ask God to bless us and inspire us not only in the “big moments,” but also as we navigate the seemingly mundane.