Parashat Para, as well as the other parashiyot, deals with the tamei, the impure, contrasted with the tahor, the pure. The tamei is that which is connected to death. The Torah distances man from death, forbidding involvement with the dead, and demanding purification of those who come into contact with the dead.
This notion is expressed in a midrash cited in the Gemara Berachot 18a. The Gemara deliberates about the connection between the living and the deceased. In response to each source that seems to indicate that there is some connection, the Gemara rejects each proofs based on factors that prevent it from serving as a valid source. This seems to indicate that the Gemara is striving to minimize the connection.
One famous example cited in this context tells of an encounter between Shmuel and his father. The midrash tells that Shmuel’s father, “Abba bar Abba,” was a tzedaka collector for orphans. After his passing, they did not know where he had left the money. Therefore, his son Shmuel went to the cemetery to seek out his deceased father. His father, at that time, was in the Heavenly academy so he was unable to speak with him. While he was waiting for his father, Shmuel noticed the soul of Levi (a rabbi who had unintentionally embarrassed another in his lifetime) sitting in the cemetery and not in the Heavenly academy. Shmuel asked that Levi be brought up to the academy, and this was done. When Shmuel’s father emerged he was simultaneously laughing and crying; he was crying that Shmuel would soon join the Heavenly academy, but laughing that his son Shmuel would be highly esteemed in the world to come. At the end of the story, Shmuel asked his father where the orphans’ money was, and his father told him, “Take it from the case of the millstones” where the money had been hidden. Shmuel’s father explained that the money on top was his own, so that this would be the most likely to be stolen, and the money on the bottom was his own, so that it would be most likely to be rotted away by the ground, and the money in between belonged to the orphans.
This midrash indicates the righteousness both of Shmuel and of his father. Shmuel’s father, “Abba ben Abba,” was true to his name – he was the father (abba) of the orphans. The midrash portrays how both Shmuel and his father scrupulously guarded the orphans’ money, and, through that, not only was Shmuel able to find the orphans’ money but his own money as well. Taking a closer look, we may also note an additional theme of this midrash: focus on the living and not on the deceased. How so?
Shmuel goes to speak with the dead because he seeks money for orphans. In the end his father tells him that the money is not in the heavens but “In the case of the millstone” – in the place where flour is ground – the round place that expresses, perhaps better than anywhere else, this world generally, and “avoda,” physical labor in particular – the cycle of life.
Shmuel’s father was in the heavenly academy. Presumably he should be satisfied with his lot and certainly he should be pleased that his son will join him in this esteemed academy. Yet his emotions express the opposite: he is pleased that his son is esteemed in the world to come, yet he is sad that his son will arrive in the heavenly academy. In other words, if you think that you can detach yourself from this world, to escape to the heavens where you can find that which you seek, you are mistaken. Rather, you should focus your attention on this world, where you can find the main attraction. And, indeed, he who is able to raise Levi up to the heavenly academy is none other than Shmuel, a human. Only someone who is in this world is truly able to exert influence.
Close examination of the teachings and actions of Shmuel may reveal another aspect of this balance. Shmuel was knowledgeable of astrology (see Berachot 58b), yet, despite the fact that he was “Expert in the pathways of the heavens,” he emphasized in his teachings, “‘It [the Torah] is not in the heavens’ – Shmuel taught, the Torah is not to be found in the astrology” (Devarim Rabba 8). Based on this we can explain that Shmuel, from whom we might have expected that he would find the orphans’ money through astrology, understood that, with his father’s help, he would find the money in our world.
Parashat Para re-emphasizes to us that the tamei, the impure, is that which is connected to death, and the tahor, the pure, is that which is connected to life. The Torah does not speak only for its own time, but to every generation. Many people in our day negate the value of this world in favor of the world to come, claiming that it is the dead who know everything, and that life in this world is an inferior existence, and, at most, we should focus on Torah study while “trapped” in this world. This important midrash teaches us that it is important to focus on our lives in this world. If you are seeking something, even “The money of the orphans,” the solutions do not lie in the heavens. Solution come through an integration of Torah and avoda and through living in this world.
[The analysis of the midrash took place in the weekly shiur on Midrash that meets on Mondays at the RZC.]