THE COW AND HER CALF
Rabbi Sheldon May
This Shabbat is designated as Parshat Parah, the third of the four special Shabbatot which precede Nissan, the month of the Jewish calendar in which Passover falls.
This Shabbat is designated as Parshat Parah, the third of the four special Shabbatot which precede Nissan, the month of the Jewish calendar in which Passover falls. The special maftir (additional reading) for today describes the preparation of the Parah Aduma (red heifer) -- hence the name Parshat Parah -- the ashes from which were indispensable for purification procedures required in the time of the Temple. Purification was carried out at this time of the year to ensure that everyone would be able to participate fully in the Karban Pesach (Pascal Lamb) to be offered on the 14th day of Nissan.
The Midrash points out that there is a highly unusual aspect to the Parah Aduma. While all other public karbanot (offerings) entailed the offering of male animals, the mitzvah of Parah Aduma could only be fulfilled with an unblemished female red heifer (i.e., a red cow). Why is this so? The Midrash answers cryptically by way of a famous parable. A certain maidservant in the service of a king had an unruly child, and this child defiled the very palace of the king. The king then decreed: "Let the maidservant, the mother of this unruly child, come and personally cleanse my palace from the defilement caused by her son!" So it is, explains the Midrash, that Hashem decrees regarding the Jewish people: "Let them bring the offering of the red cow in order to atone for the sin which they committed with her son -- the Golden Calf!"
We vividly recall the Torah portion five weeks ago in which the sin of the Golden Calf is described. The Children of Israel are camped at Mount Sinai and have just heard the Ten Commandments from the very mouth of Hashem. Moses ascends the mountain to receive the Torah and promises to return after forty days and nights have passed. But the Children of Israel become impatient, fearful that the only leader they had ever known would never return. They simply could not believe that Moses would ever come back down from that desert mountain top where he had gone alone with neither food nor water. So the Children of Israel commit a terrible sin; they fashion a Golden Calf to serve as the new intermediary between them and Hashem.
Jewish tradition teaches us that the sin of the Golden Calf was so grievous that it reverberates forever throughout our collective history. What is it, then, about the mitzvah of Parah Aduma that could possibly help atone for the shocking lack of faith which we as a people exhibited at the very foot of Mount Sinai?
The mitzvah of the red heifer is known as the quintessential chok, that category of Torah laws which defy human intellectual understanding. Indeed, King Solomon, the wisest man ever to inhabit the earth, declares in Ecclesiastes 7:23 regarding this commandment: "I thought I would be capable of acquiring wisdom, but this remains beyond my grasp" (see Talmud Tractate Yoma 14a for further discussion). The preparation and utilization of the Parah Aduma is an exceedingly complex process. Among its complexities is a paradoxical "interchange" of defilement and purification; sprinkling the ashes of the cow upon a person who had been defiled causes purification, while the Kohanim (priests) who actually carry out the various procedures in the offering become impure!
Clearly, acceptance and proper fulfillment of the requirements of Parah Aduma require nothing less than a "leap of faith". Human wisdom and intellect -- even at the level of King Solomon -- are simply insufficient to allow us to fathom the inner workings and true meaning behind this law. When we, nevertheless, faithfully perform the mitzvah despite our lack of understanding, we truly atone for the lack of faith which we as a people exhibited in fashioning the Golden Calf at the foot of Mount Sinai.
Unquestionably, Judaism requires us to make maximal use of our G-d given human intellectual abilities. However, when all is said and done, there always remains a gap between ourselves and the Creator which cannot be bridged by our human intelligence alone. Bridging this final gap requires one to exercise his or her power of faith, recognizing that there is a realm in which the heart, and not the head, reigns supreme. Rabbi Sheldon May
Rabbi Sheldon May, is a longtime resident (though not a native) of Atlanta.
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