On Purim, my daughters dressed up as cowgirls. My baby was dressed up as a cow. Their mishloach manos, the gifts of food that they shared with their friends, were cow-themed. Just when I thought that I was finished with the subject of cows, I realized that it was not so. As I sat down to prepare this essay, I realized that this week’s Torah portions – both of them – Ki Sisa, and the additional special reading, Parshas Parah, involve cows! I am skeptical that these portions have any connection to my children’s costumes, but there is a powerful connection between the two Torah portions.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Sisa, the incident of the Golden Calf is recorded (Exodus 32). In brief: Having received the Torah, Moses told the Jews that he would be going up to heaven to study it for forty days and forty nights, after which he would return and teach it to them. The Jews miscalculated the days, thinking that day one began on the day that Moses ascended. The truth of the matter was that day one began with the first complete day, beginning that evening. When the Jews saw that Moses was not coming down when the forty days were up, according their calculation, they made a golden calf as an intermediary between them and G-d, to compensate for the lack of leader. This was considered a tremendous sin, tantamount to idol worship. (Much has been written to explain this incident. The reader is encouraged to review the commentaries to achieve a greater understanding. In this essay, however, we will focus on one basic point.)
In this week’s special Torah portion, Parah, the concept of the parah adumah, the red heifer, is recorded (Numbers 19): If someone became tamei mes, spiritually impure, through contact with a human corpse (during the time of the Beis Hamikdash, The Holy Temple), a series of rituals had to be performed in order for that person to become tahor, spiritually pure, again. Part of the process entailed mixing the ashes of a red heifer in water with several other ingredients and then sprinkling this water upon the one who had become spiritually impure, a specific number of times and at certain intervals. The Torah describes this as a chok, the type of mitzvah, commandment, that we cannot logically understand – we must observe this mitzvah even though we may not be able to fully grasp the rationale or why exactly this process should accomplish the spiritual purification that it does.
Rashi, the classic commentator, quotes the following midrash (Numbers 19:2): “This can be compared to the son of a maidservant of the king whose son soiled the palace floor and his mother is asked to clean up her son’s mess. So too, let this red heifer come and clean up the sin of the golden calf.” Seemingly this midrash is teaching us that the red heifer was some sort of atonement for the golden calf. What is the connection between the two, aside from the fact that they were both members of the cow family?
Rabbi Yosef Dov Soliveitchik, who was known by the title of his written work, the Beis HaLevi, explains that the very fact that the red heifer was a chok, the type of mitzvah that we do not understand, made it exactly the right antidote for the sin of the golden calf. When the Jews at Mt. Sinai began thinking of new ways to connect to G-d, their intentions may have been commendable, but their actions were not. In order for someone to connect with G-d, he/she needs to follow certain guidelines, which are delineated for us in the Torah. When people start thinking up their own ways to connect to G-d, not in accordance with our tradition, they are risking the possibility of doing something completely wrong. One needs to follow the Torah’s teachings in order to fulfill our mission in this world. We are encouraged to study, ask and probe into the meanings and understandings of all that the Torah commands us. Ultimately, however, whether or not one can comprehend the “meaning” of any particular mitzvah, we must follow it in any case, as prescribed in the Torah, simply because this is the way to connect to G-d. This is the lesson of the parah adumah, and this is what the Jewish people failed to understand when they created the Golden Calf.
May we merit to learn the lesson of the cows, and connect to G-d through the teachings of the Torah.