This Shabbat is called Shemini, “eighth”, because the parashah begins with an account of the eighth and final day of the ritual of ordination into the priesthood for the very first High Priest, Aaron, and his sons, who were now his assistants. For seven days they have carried out a precise order of sacrifices and purity practices, and now they are ready, body and soul, to take on the role of intermediary between G*d and the People of Israel.
What is the first thing you do when you are finished with the process of getting ready for a new role? Maybe you are pregnant and preparing for the role of mother, or maybe you are graduating college and preparing for the role of participatory citizen in your community. Perhaps you are finishing orientation for a new job, or completing training for a volunteer responsibility, or getting ready for a mikveh that will turn a significant page in your life.
It seems a very positive, promising moment. But then the High Priest receives his instructions for his first official act: “Take a calf [עגל] of the herd for a sin offering” (Lev. 9.2) A sin offering? How depressing on the first day of the new reality!
The Zohar explains:
“Aaron was commanded to offer a calf as a sacrifice – because it is the offspring of a cow – to atone for that other calf that Aaron made, thereby sinning against the cow, who is unblemished, consummation of the faithful of Israel.” (Zohar, Shemini 3.37a)
This calf of the herd is offered in atonement for the golden calf. That much is clear. But what is the other, unblemished cow?
The other cow that the mystical tradition mentions here is the cow for which this parashah is also named: Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Cow, or, more specifically, the Red Heifer.
This third of the special Shabbatot occurring in the weeks before Pesakh is named for the special additional Torah that we read. It describes a recipe for creating a substance that purifies a person who has been in contact with a dead body. The recipe requires a sacrifice of “a red cow without blemish” which is completely burned. Its ashes are mixed with cedar wood, hyssop, and “crimson stuff”, and the resulting ashes are kept in a safe place, to b used for “waters of purification” when necessary.
The curious part of this, and the reason why this is the cow that does not make sense, is the following: the priest who oversees the concoction becomes impure and must undergo a purification ritual of some hours. The same is true of the person who moves the ashes. How is it that handling something pure makes one impure?
No one, not the great sages of yore and certainly no one since, understands this. It is said that Shlomo the King, who was by legend said to be the wisest of all human beings who ever lived (tradition relates that he even knew the languages of all the animals), was unable to fathom the secret of the this red cow, and after contemplating it, he was said to have declared “I said, ‘I will become wise, but it is far from me’ .”(Kohelet 7:23)
This leads us to the Two Kinds of Halakhah; the mishpat and the hok. Mishpat is the Jewish law that makes sense, such as the prohibitions against killing or stealing. Hok, on the other hand, is the category of kashrut, of the do’s and don’t’s around holy days, of this strange cow purification ritual.
For us who swim in the nearly endless sea of Jewish tradition, there will always be mystery, and we should learn to welcome it. It keeps us humble: we don’t understand everything, and we can’t. It keeps us mindful: I am doing this because I am a Jew, and there’s no other reason. And it helps the under-used imaginative side of our brains keep up with the over-emphasized rational side.
And it is a good reminder that when we stand on the edge of a new experience, there will be that which we cannot understand, and cannot possibly prepare for. And more: one does not enter a new experience “clean” of all that one has ever been. Standing on the edge of what will be, we must recognize that we bring all we ever were with us. Both cows, the one that symbolizes all you understand and the one that reminds you of all that you don’t, come with you.
Thus we go forward: humbly, realistically, humanly.
The parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week read all over the Jewish world, is called Hukat – “law”. There are two words often used for “law” in the Torah: hukah, or hok, and mishpat. You will often see them mentioned together, and they are usually translated with words that seem like synonyms to us: “laws and statutes”, for example.
But Jewish tradition teaches that there are no synonyms in Torah, no wasted words and no redundancy: when confronted with hok and mishpat, therefore, we are to look below the surface of the text, and try to hear deeper resonances of Torah that can speak to us in many relevant ways, once we begin to look. Our ancestors described the more subtle nuances of G-d’s word with the term bat kol, a “still small voice” that brings insight, once we were quieted from our wordy struggles with meaning, so that we can calm down, and listen to it.
Torah interpretation of these two terms is significantly informed by this week’s parashah. The text begins with “G-d spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying This is the hok of the Torah…” (Numbers 19.1-2) The hok, called in English a “statute”, is, in this case, the commandment of the ritual of the Red Heifer – a ritual so confoundingly illogical in its particulars that even the wise King Solomon, it is said, did not understand it.
A hok, then, is a mitzvah, a command, that is not necessarily understood. One might suggest that its presence in the Torah is to teach that one to obey it as one obeys all G-d’s commands, because it is a command, not because it is understood. Maimonides explained the difference between hok and mishpat rationally: a mishpat is a law we could figure out on our own – a law that is logical in terms of social or personal life. But a hok is a law that we could not intuit on our own, i.e. it is a command that requires revelation by G-d.
Torah laws that don’t make sense can be upsetting. We can disagree endlessly over them. Or they can invite us to an exercise of humility: painful though it might be, it is sometimes necessary for we human beings to be reminded that we are not, ourselves, capable of understanding everything about our lives. It is even possible, once in a while, that someone else is right, even when we are sure that we ourselves are correct. It is only through this struggle that new insights into Torah are revealed…and one of those insights is that some revelations will always be beyond us.
Religious practice will always contain an element of mystery, of that response which the hok summons: I don’t get it. That is the enduring contribution of religion in our age; it gives us a framework to help us consider mystery, and to confront the meaning of faith as the place where knowledge cannot go. I am not sure; I cannot explain why I feel this; I just know. These are not statements of science, nor of certainty – yet there is no reason to feel anxious about that. There is mystery at the heart of life, and we will never solve it. It can make us anxious, though; it can cause us to argue and even to become angry.
It is only when we stand in the presence of mystery, unafraid and ready to listen, that we begin to hear the bat kol, that sense of some voice outside of us that brings us insight we cannot achieve alone. It might be in the words of a friend, or a child, or a parent, or a stranger – or even an adversary in the struggle for meaning. G-d is heard every day, in the still small voice that calls to us all the time….but which we can only hear when we quiet our fears, our anger and our ego. And the way in which we deal with our uncertainty, and the way we treat each other in our anxiety, will determine whether the conflict produces more light, or only more heat.
Hillel and Shammai managed to bring light into the world. They represented two opposing Torah interpretation groups in ancient Israel. It is said about them that they disagreed about every law in the Torah, yet they conducted themselves toward each other as one indivisible community – demonstrated by the fact that children from each side married each other. In one memorable debate between the two schools, they argued seemingly incompatibly opposite positions.
But at the moment when each side stopped arguing and listened to each other’s words, both sides heard it: a bat kol issued forth declaring these and these are the words of the Living G-d. (Talmud Bavli, Eruvim 13b)
“Living” – in mystery, in conflict, in disagreement and in contradiction, even as are we – only thus do we hear the Living G-d, and so gain insight, knowledge, and understanding as we are able.