One Cow, Two Cow, Red Cow, Gold Cow

Shabbat Parah – Ki Tissa

This week is a special Shabbat called Shabbat Parah. It is named after the special maftir reading from Numbers 19 that describes the process for sacrificing the Red Heifer. This portion is always read before the beginning of the Jewish month of Nissan.

In biblical times, every person was required to bring a Korban Pesach, a Passover Sacrifice on the eve of Passover that was to be eaten during the Seder. However, only people who were ritually pure were able to partake of it. Therefore, right before the month of Nissan (the month in which Passover falls) a public announcement would be made that every person who had become impure must purify themselves, and be extremely careful not to become impure before Passover.

The parah aduma (red heifer) represents the quintessential chok (divine decree without any seeming rationale). The ashes of the red heifer were used for purification. Through the death of a calf, the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and those who served were purified and ritually cleansed to serve in the presence of G-d. The ashes were also used to purify someone who became ritually impure through contact with a dead body.

Interestingly, this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, also describes a calf, the egel massekha (the golden calf). The Jewish people grew restless after many days had passed since they last heard from Moses. So they took matters into their own hands, and Aaron and the people built a golden calf. This calf, however, was unlike the red heifer. Rather than bringing purification from ritual impurity it brought about defilement, sin, and eventually death.

In Likutei Halachot, Rebbe Nachman explains why this special portion on Shabbat Parah is read after Purim. In the course of our victory over Haman-Amalek, we become defiled through contact with death and evil, and need to be purified. The Sfat Emet further explains (and makes the connection to Ki Tissa) that tumat met (impurity from the dead) is a function of mortality, which entered the world as a result of the primordial sin of Adam who ate from the tree of knowledge.

According to Rabbi Zvi Leshem, man’s desire to be all knowing like G-d, placing the value of knowledge over that of faith, led to his downfall, bringing death and impurity into the world. Ritual purity comes through the willingness to serve HaShem even in a reality permeated by doubts and confusion.

On this Shabbat Parah we are confronted with two different scenarios involving the offspring of a cow – one that leads to life and another that leads to death. Although this does not seem to make any sense to our rational minds, there are significant reasons. It is not about us but about HaShem. The purpose of the red heifer is to remember the need to atone for the sin of the golden calf, and to bring forth purification and life where there seems only death.

About Rabbi Joshua

I'm a Rabbi, writer, thinker, mountain biker, father and husband ... not necessarily in that order. According to my wife, however, I'm just a big nerd. I have degrees in dead languages and ancient stuff. I have studied in various Jewish institutions, including an Orthodox yeshiva in Europe. I get in trouble for making friends with perfect strangers, and for standing on chairs to sing during Shabbos dinner. In addition to being the Senior Rabbi of Beth Emunah Messianic Synagogue in Agoura Hills, CA, I write regularly for several publications and speak widely in congregations and conferences. My wife is a Southern-fried Jewish Beltway bandit and a smokin' hot human rights attorney... and please don’t take offense if I dump Tabasco sauce on your cooking.
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2 Responses to One Cow, Two Cow, Red Cow, Gold Cow

  1. Diana says:

    Rabbi: Could you please explain your introduction? I can accept that you’re a Rabbi, writer, thinker, messianist but I can’t believe the next word, mystic? how do you explain that?
    Thank you,
    Diana

    • Rabbi Joshua says:

      Shalom Diana,

      Thank you for your question, as there is a lot of room for mis-information and misunderstanding with the use of such terminology. As as mystic, I believe it is possible to intimately know and experience G-d, and that G-d is indeed at work in the world around us.

      According to this basic definition of mysticism, this could include many types of Jews, and even many types of Christians. In fact, scholars refer to groups like Pentecostals and Charismatics also as mystics, as they “believe in the the knowledge of, and especially the personal experience of, states of consciousness, ecstatic prayer, utterances, and languages; including communion with the Supreme Being.”

      Strictly speaking, a mystic is one committed to the idea of “Unio mystica – Mystical union with God.” According to scholar, Rufus Jones, mysticism is, “The type of religion which puts the emphasis on immediate awareness of relation with God, on direct and intimate consciousness of the Divine Presence.”

      In fact, even 13th century Christian theologian, Thomas Aquinas, describes the mystical concept of “Cognitio dei experimentalis – The knowledge of God through experience.”

      Very early Jewish mysticism is inspired by an experiential interpretation of Psalm 34:9 – “Taste and see that the LORD is good.” According to the great Jewish mystical scholar, Gershom Scholem: “It is this tasting and seeing, however spiritualized it may become, that the genuine mystic desires.”

      I believe that it is indeed possible to know and experience HaShem on an intimate level, and that according to Abraham Joshua Heschel, G-d is actively in pursuit of that relationship with us. Yet, I also believe this needs to be balanced with sound teaching and discernment.

      I hope this helps.

      -Rabbi Joshua

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