“This is the statute of the Torah … take a red heifer” Numbers 19:2
“When you wish to determine their numbers, count them by letting each man give to God an atonement for his soul [the half-shekel] ” Exodus 30:12
This week’s special maftir for Shabbat Parah deals with the mystery of the red heifer. The animal was slaughtered and its carcass burnt. Its ashes were then mixed with special water and sprinkled on a person who had become ritually impure (by coming into contact with a human corpse). Paradoxically, the person on whom the water was sprinkled became ritually pure again, while the sprinkler became ritually impure. Even the wisest of all men, King Solomon, exclaimed that the explanation lay beyond his comprehension.
Not everything in our religion may be fathomed and even what we think we understand is still not fully grasped. For example, logic dictates that if a person shares their wealth, it should diminish, whereas if they are selfish with it, it should flourish and increase.
Yet our sages teach us that the reverse is true. This mystery, however, can be understood. At the beginning of the sidrah, the Jewish people were not counted directly; but rather by each giving a half-shekel coin, these were counted on the person’s behalf. The commentator Ba’al Haturim (Rabbi Yacob ben Asher 1269 – 1343) observes that the Hebrew “And they shall give” is made up of the following consonants vnsnv. They form a palindrome — the Hebrew word may be read backwards as well as forwards. This is because by giving we do not diminish what we have; rather, we gain since the Almighty will bless us further.
The prophet Malachi relates that if a person tithes their produce they will receive a bountiful blessing from God, so great that the storehouse will not be big enough to hold the grain. The classic commentator Malbim (Rabbi Meïr Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Weiser 1809 - 1879) explains that the Almighty has ingrained this process into the world so that there is a direct cause and effect between our giving and the Divine blessing received in return.
Blessing comes to those who give: as the Chief Rabbi wrote in his book To Heal a Fractured World, “The best way of receiving a blessing is to be a blessing.”