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A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community

Parashat Ki Tissa
Shabbat Parah
Exodus 30:11 - 34:35
Numbers 19:1-22
March 2, 2002     18 Adar 5762

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Lauren Eichler Berkun, Rabbinic Fellow

There is a certain irony when parashat Ki Tissa falls on Shabbat Parah. In our weekly Torah portion, we read about the sin of the golden calf. In the maftir for this special Shabbat preceding Passover, we read about the ritual of the red heifer. Two cows on one Shabbat! One cow represents our complete abandonment of God a mere forty days after the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The other cow represents our ability to purify ourselves in the face of death and defilement. What can we learn from the juxtaposition of these two radically different cows?

The sin of the golden calf is one of the great enigmas in the Torah. The children of Israel have just witnessed Divine revelation, in which God directly addresses the people from a thundering mountain, saying: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods besides Me. You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image..." (Ex. 20:2–4). Forty days later, the children of Israel make the sculptured image of a cow and declare, "This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!"

Perhaps we should not be surprised by their immediate and astounding backsliding. As Nehama Leibowitz argues, "One single religious experience, however profound, was not capable of changing the people from idol worshippers into monotheists." In fact, Maimonides argues that the entire purpose of the Torah is to gradually wean Israel away from their idolatrous practices: "It is the object and center of the whole Torah to abolish idolatry and utterly uproot it" (Guide 3:37). For Maimonides, the battle against idolatry provides us with the rationale for many of the mitzvot in the Torah which we might not readily understand. This brings us to the matter of the red heifer.

The bizarre ritual of the red heifer is the classic example of a "hok," a law which has no apparent reason. The rabbis identified two types of legislation in the Torah: (1) "mishpatim," rational statutes such as "do not murder" or "honor your mother and father;" and (2) "hukkim," irrational laws for which we can not ascribe a clear meaning, such as kashrut or the sacrificial system. In classical rabbinic theology, our observance of the irrational laws, the "hukkim," is a special testament to our piety and faith in God: "It is more praiseworthy to do something solely because God commands it than because our own logic or sense of morality leads us to the same conclusion" (Sifra K'doshim). Maimonides, on the other hand, argues that every law in the Torah has a specific rationale (Guide 3:31). He claims that "most of the 'hukkim,' the reasons of which are unknown to us, serve as a fence against idolatry" (Guide 3:49).

So we may never fully understand the mysterious burning of a red cow and the sprinkling of its ashes upon an impure person. However, when we read these laws on the same Shabbat in which we remember the other bovine figure in our sacred history, it is tempting to make a Maimonidean association. If our inclination toward idolatry resulted in the disgraceful golden calf, then the "hukkim" of the red heifer may purify us from this abomination. This very connection is expressed in the beautiful midrash of Numbers Rabbah 19:8:

Why are all the sacrifices male and this one [the sacrifice of the red heifer] is a female? Rabbi Aibu explained: This may be illustrated by a parable. A handmaiden's boy polluted a king's palace. The king said: 'Let his mother come and clear away the filth.' In the same way the Holy One said: 'Let the Heifer come and atone for the incident of the Calf!'

Best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom.


The publication and distribution of "A Taste of Torah" commentary have been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi.