Shabbat Parah: This Calf Makes Sense, This Cow Does Not

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 Meaning of Sacrifice

On this Shabbat we begin the Book VaYikra (in English, “Leviticus”, because the book is really an instruction manual for the Levites and Kohanim, priests). This book records for us the ancient ritual of sacrifices as they were offered to our G-d (other sacrifices offered in specifically different ways were offered to other gods). What are we, two thousand years after the last sacrifice was brought to the Jerusalem Temple, to do with these texts?

This too is Torah, and within it there will be something that we need to learn, if we are willing to look closely and in a spirit of thoughtfulness. If we come to the text feeling dismissive, prejudging it as clearly meaningless, it will be. Follow the lead of generations of Jews who determined to keep it relevant because it is a memory of our ancestors, our grandparents and great-grandparents. Look closely at the words, see if something does not intrigue you. And if you can’t find it for yourself, read the commentaries. 

One example: VaYikra Chapter 1, verse 1: If you look closely at the first word, VaYikra, which means “[G-d] called” you will see that the last letter of the word, an alef, is written much smaller than the rest of the letters. What can be learned from this small alef? The alef is the first letter of the Hebrew alef-bet, and it is also the first letter of the word ani, “I”. Insight: sometimes one must make oneself small, i.e. humble, in order to hear G-d’s call.
The most intriguing question brought forth by this material for me is to consider:

What is the importance of sacrifice? The sacrifices our ancestors made seem far from us, and they are difficult to understand or to justify in our own day. But the details are preserved so completely and so carefully, at such length, that we should be curious as to why. Human nature has not changed so very much in only a couple of thousand years. What made the sacrificial system so necessary, in their eyes, to their relationship with the universe, and with G-d? What essential human need is served by giving up something of great value? Remember that for them, bringing an offering from their flocks of sheep or goats was a real financial sacrifice. One theory is that they felt that this was the only way to bring the universe back into balance after the kind of cosmic skewing caused by sin.
How does your Jewishness inform your understanding of sacrifice? Is there anything in your religious observances that moves you to sacrifice something for a greater good? Are you able to see the idea of sacrifice as answering an essential human need? To ask it another way, what, in your experience, is an effective way of atoning, bringing the universe back into alignment, after you sin?
I know, it’s a long time from Yom Kippur, Rabbi, why are you talking about sin? It’s one of those words from which we can learn a great deal if we are willing to bring it out of the box of toxic words damaged by powerful individuals who have used profound religious teachings for venal, manipulative purposes. Sin is simply that which separates you from G-d. Atonement through sacrifice may be a very powerful way of bringing you back home.