Shabbat Parah: It’s The Same Gold

רבי יוסי בן חנינה אומר ועשית כפרת זהב טהור, יבא זהב כפורת ויכפר על זהב עגל

R. Yossi ben Hanina says: “Then you shall make a kappōret of pure gold …” (Exod. 25:17)—Let the gold of the kappōret atone [yekhaper] for the gold of the calf.

This Shabbat is Shabbat Parah, Shabbat of the [red] Heifer, so called because of the special extra reading added to the regular parashat hashavua. As one of the Four special Shabbatot that count us down to Pesakh, on it we include the recipe for ritual purification. One had to be tahor, ritually ready, in order to offer a sacrifice, and the entire people were meant to participate in the upcoming Passover sacrifice.

Our Shabbat Ki Tisa is about another kind of cow: the Golden Calf. What does the juxtaposition of Purim, which we celebrated this week, have to do with this story?

On Purim we are to upend and dethrone every sacred cow; on this Shabbat Ki Tisa we suffer the consequences of choosing the wrong time to question authority, and reject it.

In other words, 

תַּפּוּחֵ֣י זָ֭הָב בְּמַשְׂכִּיּ֥וֹת כָּ֑סֶף דָּ֝בָ֗ר דָּבֻ֥ר עַל־אׇפְנָֽיו

A word fitly spoken Is like apples of gold in settings of silver

– Mishle (Proverbs)25.11

If it is not “fitly spoken,” at the right time in the right way, the Rabbis tell us, it would be better not to speak at all. Is it is a Red Heifer or a Golden Calf? Without history, without context, without details, we cannot say.

On Monday night, we were to make light of everything – to eat, drink and be merry, the better to bear our lives with grace. This Shabbat, we relive the catastrophe of the chaos that nearly overtook our people when we “sat down to eat and drink, and then rose to dance” (Shemot – Exodus – 32.6) As Aharon the High Priest might have said, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

We can’t always know in advance how something will turn out – actually we can almost never know. That is how our ancestors learned to define wisdom as 

איזהו חכם הרואה את הנולד

Who is the wise person? The one who sees and anticipates the consequences of his behavior.

– Babylonian Talmud Tamid 32a

Life keeps changing. What was an ethical act yesterday may not be so tomorrow, because in each instance the particulars are unique. As the Talmud asserts, the minority opinion today may be the correct decision at some other time. 

And life is a constantly changing balance, and we are on the narrow bridge that sways – sometimes toward openness and mercy, sometimes toward setting boundaries and judgement.

The answer we seek may keep changing in its particulars, but for us Jews, barukh haShem (thank G*d) the context is our Torah community.


for more on the Ark as atonement for the calf, see:


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