In the merit of a refuah sheleima for Yitzchak Yaakov ben Henna Lentza.
The first section of Parashat Chukat, which presents the basic laws of the para aduma (red heifer), is read each year not only as part of the standard Torah reading cycle, but also as the maftir reading on one of the Shabbatot in between Purim and Rosh Chodesh Nissan. This special reading of “Parashat Para,” as this section is known, is mentioned in the Shulchan Arukh along with the other special readings conducted during that time of year (O.C. 685:3).
The Magen Avraham commentary cites the various views concerning the source of this requirement. Whereas the conventional view is that the reading of Parashat Para, like virtually every other required Torah reading, was instituted by the Sages, there is an opinion that this reading constitutes a Biblical obligation, like the reading of Parashat Zakhor before Purim. The Magen Avraham notes the obvious difficulty in this position, raising the question of where the Torah makes any indication of a requirement to read Parashat Para. Unlike the reading of Parashat Zakhor, which is introduced by an explicit command – “Remember that which Amalek did to you” (Devarim 25:17), the reading of Parashat Para does not appear to have any basis in the Torah text.
A creative answer to this question appears in Rav Shmuel Alter’s compendium Likutei Batar Likutei, citing the Artzot Ha-chayim. Rashi, in his closing remarks to the section of the para aduma, cites an elaborate symbolic explanation of these laws in the name of Rabbi Moshe Ha-darshan, who saw the para aduma as a means of atonement for the sin of the golden calf. If, indeed, this is the function of the para aduma, then we may perhaps identify a Biblical source for the requirement to read Parashat Para each year. The Torah in Sefer Devarim (9:7) commands, “Remember and do not forget how you angered the Lord your God in the wilderness.” We are commanded to remember our ancestors’ sin in the wilderness with the same expression – “zakhor” – used to command us to recall Amalek’s assault. Conceivably, then, this verse introduces an obligation to conduct a formal reading of the story of the golden calf. We fulfill this obligation, the Artzot Ha-chayim explains, through the reading of the para aduma, the mitzva that serves to atone for the golden calf. Rather than read of Benei Yisrael’s shameful worship of a graven image at the foot of Mount Sinai just weeks after the Revelation, we instead read of the law through which that grievous sin is rectified.
The underlying premise of this insight is that if the Torah commanded us to remember our nation’s shameful past, this must be for the purpose of correcting our mistakes. Recalling the tragedy of the golden calf is not intended to bring shame upon our ancestors, but rather serves to assure us of the possibility of repairing the damage done through wrongdoing. However one chooses to explain the precise point of connection between the golden calf and the para aduma (a topic addressed by many writers and darshanim), the message being conveyed here is that a command to recall the former must involve the latter. There is no purpose served in recalling our mistakes of the past without contemplating the process of rectifying them. Reflecting on the wrongs we’ve committed has no value if it leads us to paralyzing shame and guilt; such reflection becomes significant and precious only if it leads to reflection on how our mistakes were corrected or still need be corrected, so that they can retroactively be transformed into part our lifelong process of growth and improvement.