Sunday, March 31, 2024

Holy Cow- on the Golden Calf and the Red Heifer


Holy Cow- on the Golden Calf and the Red Heifer

March 30,2024

For the video presentation

Last week-  special Torah reading Ki Tisa- directed at fund-raising, in particular, the poll tax of half shekel per adult male. The intention to provide a fund, obviously, for the regular maintenance of the new Tabernacle, but also later, the Temple.

However, in the very same portion, which we actually read 4 weeks ago, the main thrust is the story of the Golden Calf- egal ha Zahav. Suffice it to say that the declaration of reconciliation between God & Moses, becomes the core theme of Yom Kippur. Adonay, Adonay- The Lord, The Lord, is a compassionate God.

One element of the reconciliation with the people, is this strange ceremony:

Ex 32:20

וַיִּקַּ֞ח אֶת־הָעֵ֨גֶל אֲשֶׁ֤ר עָשׂוּ֙ וַיִּשְׂרֹ֣ף בָּאֵ֔שׁ וַיִּטְחַ֖ן עַ֣ד אֲשֶׁר־דָּ֑ק וַיִּ֙זֶר֙ עַל־פְּנֵ֣י הַמַּ֔יִם וַיַּ֖שְׁקְ אֶת־בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל׃

He took the calf that they had made and burned it; he ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it.


When else do we have ceremony involving drinking something that is dissolved in the water?

Numbers 5:14

but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself—or if a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself



The priest shall put these curses down in writing and rub it off into the water of bitterness.

He is to make the woman drink the water of bitterness that induces the spell, so that the spell-inducing water may enter into her to bring on bitterness.


If she is innocent, the waters do her no harm. The upshot is that the  husband and the wife, now that the fit of jealousy has gone, can reconcile and continue to build their lives together.


Can you see the parallel here:

The prophets saw the relation of the children of Israel as that of two lovers:

Hosea, for example, takes a wife who is unfaithful, and he then understands God’s problem with the people of Israel- an unrequited love, but the goal is a reunion of the two lovers:


And I will espouse you forever:
I will espouse you with righteousness and justice,
And with goodness and mercy,

And I will espouse you with faithfulness;
Then you shall be devoted to GOD.

Hosea 2:21

This is what we say when we wrap the tefillin around the hand:

אֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִ֖י לְעוֹלָ֑ם וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִי֙ בְּצֶ֣דֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּ֔ט וּבְחֶ֖סֶד וּֽבְרַחֲמִֽים׃

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּ֥יךְ לִ֖י בֶּאֱמוּנָ֑ה וְיָדַ֖עַתְּ אֶת־יְהֹוָֽה׃ {פ}

Erastich—is the term for a legal engagement, essentially, a marriage.


So, we can see the burnt waters of the Golden Calf as a test of loyalty of the beloved to the lover. An appropriate parallel.


Now, this Shabbat, we have a special additional reading, Shabbat Parah- the Shabbat of the Heifer, specifically, the Red Heifer. It appears only a few chapters after our ordeal of the jealous husband. Numbers 19

זֹ֚את חֻקַּ֣ת הַתּוֹרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־צִוָּ֥ה יְהוָ֖ה לֵאמֹ֑ר דַּבֵּ֣ר ׀ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֣וּ אֵלֶיךָ֩ פָרָ֨ה אֲדֻמָּ֜ה תְּמִימָ֗ה אֲשֶׁ֤ר אֵֽין־בָּהּ֙ מ֔וּם אֲשֶׁ֛ר לֹא־עָלָ֥ה עָלֶ֖יהָ עֹֽל׃

This is the ritual law that יהוה has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.


The red heifer is slaughtered, burned to ashes, and the ashes then mixed with water and sprinkled on someone who has been defiled ,  impure.



This leads into a question that disturbed the Rabbis for centuries, but I will get to that next. For now= I have had a Golden Calf, an ordeal of jealousy, and now ashes from a read heifer—all are actions that are intended to lead to a reconciliation. The children of Israel look for a physical tangible God in the golden calf so to say that their invisible lover is not enough for them and by this ordeal of the dust of the golden calf in the water they find some kind of reconciliation. In the case of the ordeal of jealousy the water of bitterness into which the name of God has been dissolved becomes a tool to bring the two closer together. And now with the red heifer the dust of the red heifer becomes a tool to eliminate the alienation and distancing from God that comes with feeling impure.


Why red heifer. Well we may want to ask first about the golden calf, what color is gold? You know we have white gold are we have rose gold and we have the old gold also sometimes called Mexican gold which is a strong red tinge to it. So when we say a Red heifer we may mean a cow that has a reddish tone to a blonde hair there, could be like a rose gold or the red gold. Now maybe we have a connection?


Rashi comments from a Midrashic source:


Why this rite was performed with a cow may be exemplified by a parable. It may be compared to the case of a handmaid’s child that defiled the king’s palace. They said: Let the mother come and wipe up the excrement. Similarly here: since they became defiled by a calf, let its mother (a cow) come and atone for the calf (cf. Midrash Tanchuma, Chukat 8).


now you can see the connection that the red heifer becomes a reminder that there's always a source for purification and reconciliation when we have gone astray as happened at the golden calf, the mother cleaning up the mess of the baby.


This in turn actually leads to a much more complicated question and it perturbs the rabbis:


 That the whole element of a red heifer and the dust and ashes and purifying and impurifying are a very odd and irrational command. One of the things the rabbis did not like was irrationality. They wanted to believe that everything could be proved logically from the clear language of the text without resorting to too much invention. So all of the Bible in their thinking, all of the commands had to have some grounding, some basis in actual fact ,in actual reality in practical application , and that's how they interpreted the Torah's laws. As far as they were concerned when it came to faith , faith was discovered out of an experience with reality, an experience with history, and these were things that could be proven and verified. It's a very different perspective from the classic Christian perspective which puts everything on the concept of blind faith or as one of the church fathers stated “I believe because it is absurd”.

We can agree or disagree if the Rabbi’s logic was really correct ,really founded in fact but certainly that's what they were looking for. Therefore this particular observance perturbed them very much. How could you have a ruling that did not have an explanation to it, that has no proof behind it or reason behind it.

The Rabbis commented that even King Solomon, the wisest man, gave up trying to understand it.

 So there is this rabbinic discussion:


A certain stranger questioned Rabban Johanan ben Zakkay, “These things which you do seem like a kind of sorcery. You bring a heifer, burn it, pound it, and take its ashes. Then [when] one of you is defiled by a corpse, they sprinkle two or three drops on him, and you say to him, ‘You are clean.’”

 He said to him, “Have you ever had a bad spirit of madness enter you?” He told him, “No.” He said to him, “Perhaps you have seen someone into whom a bad spirit has entered?” He told him, “Yes.” He said to him,

“So what did you do for him?” He said to him, “They bring roots and burn them beneath him. Then they sprinkle water on [the spirit], and it flees.”

 He said to him, “Let your ears hear what you are uttering with your mouth. Similarly is this spirit an unclean spirit. Thus it is stated (in Zech. 13:2), ‘and I will also remove the ‘prophets’ and the unclean spirit from the land.’ They sprinkle the purifying water upon him, and he flees.”


After the gentile had left, [R. Johanan's] disciples said to him, “Our master, you repelled this one with a [mere] reed [of an answer]. What have you to say to us?” He said to them, “By your lives, a corpse does not defile, nor does a heifer purify, nor does water purify. Rather, the Holy One, blessed be He, has said, ‘I have enacted a statute for you. I have issued a decree, [and] you are not allowed to transgress against my decree.’” Thus it is written (in Numb. 19:2), “This is the statute of the Torah.”


The Hebrew word here is Hukkah—an ordinance, as opposed to Mishpatim, judicial decisions. Mishpatim, like the law against stealing or murder, are grounded in human logic and experience.

A Hok-or Hukkah- in Biblical Hebrew-is , we might say, something axiomatic—a given, a foundation.


We might say, that as rational or analytical as the Rabbis wanted to be, they express something here that is a deeper philosophical issue, that is that there is a point beyond which pure logic can not go, an event horizon. For example, pure logic, reiniges Vernunft, can clarify our positions, but it can not tell us what is the value of a human being. It cannot tell us what life means. It can not tell us what is our goal for existence as a human being.


So, I think we can summarize that a Hukkah, like the Red Heifer, helps us face those things for which we have no easy answers. As Rabbi Ben Zakkai stated, its function is to remind us that our goal is to carry out the demands of that which is greater than any one of us, alone, or combined.


So what now, when there is no red heifer, no Temple, and no sacrifice?

Christians claim that it was solved by Jesus ( a propos of Easter) as the ultimate Korban, replacing all others once and for all.


But we have a better answer:

About this, from Midrash Tanchuma has this to say about the portion:

“Israel said in front of the Holy One, blessed be He, Master of the world, You command that we bring all of these sacrifices. But now that the Temple was destroyed, where can we bring our sacrifices to atone for our sins?”


So the Holy One, blessed be He, said to them, “If you want that they should be atoned for you, keep my laws. How?

God said to them, “Keep my Torah. And how do we know this?”

זֹ֣את הַתּוֹרָ֗ה לָֽעֹלָה֙ לַמִּנְחָ֔ה וְלַֽחַטָּ֖את וְלָאָשָׁ֑ם וְלַ֨מִּלּוּאִ֔ים וּלְזֶ֖בַח הַשְּׁלָמִֽים׃

Such are the rituals of the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being,


אֲשֶׁ֨ר צִוָּ֧ה יְהֹוָ֛ה אֶת־מֹשֶׁ֖ה בְּהַ֣ר סִינָ֑י בְּי֨וֹם צַוֺּת֜וֹ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל לְהַקְרִ֧יב אֶת־קׇרְבְּנֵיהֶ֛ם לַיהֹוָ֖ה בְּמִדְבַּ֥ר סִינָֽי׃ {פ}

with which יהוה charged Moses on Mount Sinai, when commanding that the Israelites present their offerings to יהוה, in the wilderness of Sinai.


“This is the Torah of [the Hebrew letter used here Is “La”-about-]- the burnt offering, the meal offering, the sin offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being,” do not read it ‘rather’ as such “ La” about, but “La” ‘not’(in Aramaic the word לא  is read like the letters LA) these are the teachings (Torah): not the burnt offering, not the meal offering, not the sin offering, not the guilt offering, not the offering of ordination, and not the sacrifice of well-being. Rather you should be busy learning Torah and it should be important to you more as if you were making an offering equal to all of the offerings.” (Tanhuma, Tzav portion, Siman (section)14 – Warsaw edition)


Finally, let’s keep in mind- the nature of the Korban= to the most part, eaten by the worshipper in the presence of God—Who eats together?

Not peasants and Lords, not ruler and ruled, but only trusted close friends and family, as in the word “companion”- with whom we share “pan”- our bread.

In the future, maybe we will have once again, a Temple feast, human in the presence of God—and we can use lab grown meat for the ox!
















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