This week’s Torah portion is Chukat which is full of more narrative with the death of Aaron and Miriam, the movement closer to Canaan and we sense the closing of this part of our history on the horizon. But being that it is Fathers’ Day weekend I want to focus on a smaller but significant part of the story. This is the Torah portion where we learn about the ritual of the Red Heifer. You see a person becomes tameh (ritually impure or unclean) by touching or being under the same roof with a dead person, was purified with the mei eifer parah adumah, the ashes of a pure red heifer mixed with spring water. What is fascinating about this ritual is the act of creating the mixture of ashes and water renders the person doing it tameh while the person it is used for becomes clean. A red heifer is a rare animal and tradition teaches that from the time of Moses to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70CE there were only 9 red heifers that were used. That said the birth of a Red Heifer is an important story, even today, in Israel, when a candidate calf is born there are those hoping for a new Temple being built will make it a worldwide news story like in 1997 when one was discovered. But how do we link it to Fathers’ Day?
Well because one of our mitzvot is honoring our parents, and it is one that the Rabbis teach is the hardest to do. Not because all parents are bad, but respecting our parents becomes harder as we forge our own identity in life. It is not easy to do exactly as our parents wish when we become our own people. But there is a story that links a red heifer with a lesson taught to us from a non-Jew who knew how to practice this important yet difficult mitzvah.
Rabbi Eliezer was asked: How far does one have to respect parents? He said: Go and see what Dama Ben Nisina, a non-Jew in Ashkelon, did for his father.
Some Levites were sent to buy from Dama a jewel of extraordinary worth and beauty to replace missing stones on the High Priest's breast plate. The jewels were locked in a safe box, the key under the head of Dama’s father as he slept. Dama told the men to come back later, but thinking it was a trick the Levites kept raising their offer. Dama refused even at twice the normal price for he would not wake his tired father to sell the jewel. Frustrated the Levites left and returned later to buy the jewel and Dama sold it to them at the proper price and not at the inflated rate for he felt he should not benefit from respecting his father. In the next season Dama’s flock was blessed with a perfect Red Heifer that would bring him wealth from the same Levites for its rarity commanded a great price. In that moment the Levites understood better the mitzvah of honoring one’s parent.
While I don’t believe in divine rewards and punishments for our actions I believe there is some value in exploring even the hardest of mitzvot and trying to make them work in your life. This story shows us that simple things like not disturbing a sleeping father (or mother) can be seen as a great mitzvah as it sets a tone for greater opportunity to honor a parent. (this section can be read aloud to children) This can be true of all the mitzvot. We shouldn’t live our lives Jewishly because we hope God will give us a red heifer or the modern equivalent. We should seek out the ways our Torah teaches us to live that honor the world we live in because when we do we bring holiness into our lives and the lives of those around us. Honoring our parents does not mean giving up who we are but it means acknowledging who they are, their wisdom, their identity and frankly the moments in time that they formed. That does not mean we can’t challenge them nor they us. I learned so much from my dad in the short time I had him and frankly as he was I likely would not have much in common with him today. But as I approach tomorrow, I know that I can take the best from him even some 35 years after he left. Honor Dad (and Mom) tomorrow in the way you can. I know for some it will be hard. The mitzvot in my opinion are not supposed to be rules we must avoid breaking but guides to help us build a better world. It was never meant to be easy. Each time we use them to form a new way to operate in the world we add to a new and better place, regardless how small the gesture may be. Dama let his dad sleep instead of gain a huge profit. Sometimes it takes baby steps for us, but remember that baby steps toward a better world means you are still moving in the right direction.