Thoughts and Teachings: Haftarah for Shemini – Shabbat Parah

Once again, this Shabbat is a special Shabbat, Shabbat Parah (שבת פרה) the Sabbath [of the red] heifer which takes place on the Shabbat before Shabbat HaChodesh, (April 9th/1st of Nisan) in preparation for Passover (the eve of April 22nd/14th of Nisan). Along with the regular Torah reading, Leviticus 9:1-11:47,[i] there is a special maftir, Numbers 19:1-22 (Parashat Chukat) sets forth the decrees (חקת) from the LORD concerning the use of the ashes of the “red heifer” (פרה אדמה) in which the kohanim and Bnei Israel were to use to purify themselves so that they would be ritually clean and in this case ready to make the Pesach sacrifice. For a traditional understanding of this “ritual” take a look at Meet the Red Heifer, by Rabbi Mendy Kaminker.

Following the Sephardic custom, the special Hafatrah for this Shabbat is found in Ezekiel 36:16-38 which contains a two-part speech from ADONAI to Israel.[ii] The first part, 36:16-21 is the LORD’s charge against Israel, for her uncleanness through sin and idolatry which led to her being disciplined and exiled from the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In both Exodus (Ki Tisa, 32:12-13) and Numbers (Shelach, 14:13-16), Moshe reminded the LORD that the nations would not see Israel’s discipline as a result of something they did wrong but rather as a result of His inability to keep Israel safe and secure. In the Haftarah, the LORD acknowledges this when He declares that He is concerned for His holy Name “which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations wherever they went,” (Ezekiel 36:21). The next two verses serve as a segue between the two speeches:

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, thus says Adonai Elohim: ‘I do not do this for your sake, house of Israel, but for My holy Name, which you profaned among the nations wherever you went. I will sanctify My great Name, which has been profaned among the nations—which you have profaned among them. The nations will know that I am Adonai’— it is a declaration of Adonai — ‘when I am sanctified in you before their eyes.’” (Ezekiel 36:22-23)

Note, it was not Israel’s actions in the nations that profaned the Name of ADONAI, it was their very presence, exiled from their land that was the profanity. Was sin involved? Absolutely! And that is what brought on the discipline. But the profanity was not their sin but the appearance that HaShem could not “keep His people” that He had delivered from Egypt and settled in their land, promised to the the patriarchs.

Now begins the second Divine speech, and what links the Haftarah to Numbers 19 and the decrees concerning the red heifer. The LORD Himself will remedy the profanity situation:

“‘For I will take you from the nations, gather you out of all the countries and bring you back to your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean from all your uncleanness and from all your idols. Moreover, I will give you a new heart. I will put a new spirit within you. I will remove the stony heart from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Ruach within you.” (Ezekiel 36:24-27a)

Eight times in these verses the LORD says or infers, “I will…”

  • I will take you from the nations, gather you out of all the countries
  • [I will] bring you back to your own land
  • I will sprinkle clean water on you and you will be clean from all your uncleanness and from all your idols
  • I will give you a new heart
  • I will put a new spirit within you
  • I will remove the stony heart from your flesh
  • [I will] give you a heart of flesh
  • I will put My Ruach within you

This is a reminder of the LORD’s words to Moshe concerning Israel’s original setting apart in Parashat Va’etchanan:

“For you are a holy people to Adonai your God—from all the peoples on the face of the earth, Adonai your God has chosen you to be His treasured people. It is not because you are more numerous than all the peoples that Adonai set His love on you and chose you—for you are the least of all peoples. Rather, because of His love for you and His keeping the oath He swore to your fathers, Adonai brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 7:6-8)

All these actions of the LORD do not relieve Israel from doing her part – the passage in Deuteronomy goes on to state: “Know therefore that Adonai your God, He is God—the faithful God who keeps covenant kindness for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His mitzvot,” (7:9). In Ezekiel the same thing is said with one major difference, not only is Israel to keep the mitzvot, but now she is empowered to do so by the LORD Himself, through His Ruach HaChodesh (Holy Spirit).

“I will put My Ruach within you. Then I will cause you to walk in My laws, so you will keep My rulings and do them.” (Ezekiel 36:27)

Obedience to the mitzvot is not a means of “earning” the favor of ADONAI, rather it is a response of a grateful, Ruach empowered people who want to please their LORD for His goodness and mercy, for His covenantal fidelity, regardless of their, our shortcomings.

In the Apostolic Writings, Yeshua taught his disciples;

“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.” (John 14:15)

Now we know that we have come to know Him by this—if we keep His commandments.” (1 John 2:3)

“For this is the love of God—that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)

Today, we live in the “already, not yet” of the Kingdom. The LORD has, at least in part, brought Israel back to her land as promised both to the patriarchs, as well as to Israel through the prophet Ezekiel, “Then you will live in the land that I gave to your fathers. You will be My people and I will be your God.” Ezekiel 36:28 There are numbers of Jews, both here in Israel and throughout the world that have already be “sprinkled with clean water” and have received “a new heart and new, empowered spirit.” That is the “already” part, the “not yet” part awaits Rav. Shaul’s future hope as he explained to the believers in Rome;

“For I do not want you, brothers and sisters, to be ignorant of this mystery—lest you be wise in your own eyes—that a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles (those from the nations) has come in; and in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written, ‘The Deliverer shall come out of Zion. He shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob. And this is My covenant with them (Israel), when I take away their sins.” (Romans 11:25-27)

As in Deuteronomy and Ezekiel, it is the LORD who says, “I take away their sins.” Therefore we, as well as all of Israel, respond in love and obedience to His action, His removal of our sins.

Shabbat Shalom

[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the Tree of Life(TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.

[ii] Much of the Divine speech material was gleaned from Fishbane, Michael.The JPS Bible Commentary: Haftarot (English and Hebrew Edition). The Jewish Publication Society, 2002. p 250


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Michael Hillel with his wife Vered and their three children, made aliyah from the US in late 80s, and in biblical fashion has, for the last 27 years, done whatever his hands have found to do. In 2013 Michael began working on a MA degree in Messianic Jewish Theology. Using the tools learned from his studies, he has been writing teaching and devotional materials from both the Tanakh and Apostolic Writings. Since Messianic Judaism shares a communal context with both Judaism and Christianity, he incorporates material from both traditionally Jewish and Christian perspectives.