Shemini/Shabbat Parah

1. Shabbat Shalom

2. Whenever we talk about the Red Cow, the laws from the book of Bamidbar about purity and death, we usually talk about the mystery of the ritual. A fully red cow is burned to ash on the altar. When a small amount of these ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on someone who has been contaminated by contact with a dead body, the most severe form of ritual contamination, the mixture removes that contamination and the affected person is restored to a state of ritual purity. But anyone who has to handle the red cow during the burning process, automatically is contaminated with a lesser form of ritual impurity and must go the the mikveh that night.

3. That mystery, why the ashes make pure the contaminated but contaminate the pure has been the subject of many sermons over the years; but I want to consider today another aspect of this odd sacrifice. The ashes of the red cow are the only way to remove the contamination that arises from contact with the dead. Death is something that human beings have feared probably since the beginning of time. We have extensive myths about what happens when we die and where our consciousness goes to after our body dies. One minute we are alive, body and soul, the next moment we are just a lifeless body. One minute we are breathing and alive, the next moment our breath is gone and no amount of help can make us alive again. God gives us our life when we are born and we are not sure how that happens. God takes our life when it is over and we are not sure how that happens either. It is all very mysterious, unexplainable and therefore frightening.

4. The sacrifice of the red cow is how we attempt to stop the inevitable march of death through our world. It was believed that if we get too close to death, death will come to us; the ashes of the red cow make that death go away, until the next time we have contact with it. We could discuss here the fact that ancient civilizations had no understanding of germs, disease and infection. We could discuss whether our ancestors really believed that the ashes of the red cow would help us cheat death. It would be a very fascinating discussion but I would like to take this in a very different direction. The red cow is not the only way humans can cheat death. There are many people, in all of history, who have given us life by giving up their own. Like the red cow, they are the heroes, who in death brought life to the world. And this week we had a number of heroes to remember.

5. This week was the 100th year since the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. I know that nobody here was alive and remembers that tragedy, but it was a single disaster and the deaths that occurred have saved many lives over the years. The details of the disaster should be well known. 146 people, mostly women, died in the disaster, from the fire, from asphyxiation, or from blunt trauma from jumping to escape the fire. The fire began on the eighth floor, in a bin full of cuttings from the the past weeks. The workers, mostly immigrant women but there were also 17 male workers, on the ninth floor had no warning of the blaze below them until it arrived. There were three exits from the floor plus the elevators. One of the exits was locked to prevent theft. The foreman on the floor escaped without unlocking the door. The outside fire escape was in poor condition and quickly fell from the side of the building killing all those who were on it. The elevator operators kept the elevators running saving as many as they could until the flames caused the rails of the elevator to buckle and they were no longer useable. Some of the victims pried open the elevator doors and jumped down the shaft to their deaths. The one last internal staircase within three minutes was filled with smoke and flame and then blocked by bodies both up and down.

6. The fire department arrived quickly but their ladders could only reach the sixth floor, well below the fire on the ninth. A crowd of people quickly gathered around the building and what they saw was a nightmare. To escape the flames, the women jumped from the windows only to die on the pavement below. Eyewitnesses said that they saw one couple, a man and a women, kiss and then jump together. There were safety nets held by firemen but they could not handle those jumping from such a high floor. Women in the crown fainted as they watched, one by one, the women jump to their deaths. Men charged the police line trying to get into the building to save those trapped inside.

7. When it was all over, it would take a long time to identify all of the bodies. In fact, the last six unidentified bodies were only given names this past February. There were huge funerals for the victims of the fires and thousands attended, and marched down the street in solidarity with those who died. The owners were tried for manslaughter but were acquitted in a criminal trial. There was a civil lawsuit and they did have to pay each of the victim’s family a fine; and there was an insurance settlement that also paid the families of the victims.

8. But there is more to this story. It was this tragedy, the worst industrial accident in the history of New York City, that accelerated the labor movement in this country. Labor Unions became strong advocates for safe working conditions and the rights of workers. The fire marshal of New York City initiated a citywide investigation and found over 200 other factories with similar conditions to the Triangle factory, placing their workers in similar danger. New York State and later many other states, began to pass fire safety laws designed to prevent another disaster like the Triangle fire. Today, whenever you see a sign in a store that reads, “This door must remain unlocked during regular business hours” it is a reminder of the lessons learned from the women who died in the Triangle fire. The exits in this room, the fire alarm equipment, the emergency lighting and the fire suppression equipment all are in place right here because of lessons learned in the Triangle fire. There is a monument to the disaster on the building in New York City, which was rebuilt and in use today, in memory of those who died. But their deaths have saved countless. Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of that tragedy.

9. In the recent tragedies in Haiti, Chile and Japan, we have seen a similar heroism. There are men and women from all over the world who have flown directly to the center of each disaster and worked in horrid conditions, to enter buildings and save the lives of those trapped inside. These rescue squads, with special dogs trained to sniff out the living and the dead, risk their own lives to help others. The rescuers in Japan I want to single out for special note because the quake in Japan was so great that there were some very severe aftershocks. Each aftershock brought another alarm about another possible tsunami. As soon as the danger passed, however, these brave rescue workers went back to their work to save more lives.

10. And in Japan, there are another breed of heroes. There are, right now, 50 men who are braving certain death to continue to work in the damaged nuclear reactors in Japan to prevent a meltdown and a mass radioactive contamination of the surrounding area, an area that may include Tokyo itself. This week, three of the men stepped in radioactive water, that seeped into their protective clothing and they had to be sent to the hospital to be treated for elevated radioactivity. They have struggled to enter the damaged buildings, to find ways to pump water into the reactors and to reattach power cables to get the safety equipment and the emergency sensing equipment working again. They have volunteered to endure long exposure to four times the usual limit of radiation, in order to save the lives of those who live within a fifty mile radius of the damaged plant. One by one, they are working to secure the radioactive reactor cores and the pools that hold the spent nuclear fuel. The reactors will never be able to be used again but these heroes work on to prevent the further escape of radiation. The lessons that are being learned from this emergency will be used in every other country to assess the risk and to discover new ways to keep humanity safe from nuclear radiation.

11. The priests of the Temple of Jerusalem endured their own brush with death, to create the ashes that would help save others from death’s contamination. To save a life, says our tradition, is to save the world. We could look at this ritual as a vestige of a bygone era, or we can see it as a lesson about heroism in the human spirit. Sometimes people die. Some tragically in fires and natural disasters. Some by running into danger to save the lives of others. I am privileged to work as a chaplain for the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s office. I get to work with these heroes often. Every day they go out, never knowing what the next hours may hold in store for them. Each time they say goodby, they remind each other, “Stay safe”. I put on my Kevlar vest for eight hours a month. They put theirs on for each 11 and 1/2 hour shift. They run into danger so we don’t have to. They too are heroes.

12. As I reflected on the history of the Triangle fire, I began to wonder how many more men and women would have to die before we can see real gun reform laws in this country? According to Newsweek magazine, since the killings in Tuscon, Arizona, over 2500 Americans have been killed by gun violence. How many more have to die before we can have some sensible gun control in this country?

13. Parshat Parah is our annual reminder that sometimes each of us are called upon to be a hero to someone else. Maybe we don’t risk our lives, but when we offer a hand to help those in need, we have also saved a life. A friend of mine once stated that a hero is just like anyone one else but he or she is brave just a few minutes longer. Let us brood this day, not on the mystery of how the ashes of the red cow worked, but on the mysterious part of the human psyche, which brings others to sacrifice their lives so that many others can live. We owe them all, this Shabbat, our deepest gratitude.

May God help us learn the lessons of life from the sacrifices of others, and may our lives be longer and better because they lived and died. Amen and Shabbat Shalom

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