This week’s Torah portion is Vayakhel-Pekudei, Exodus 35:1–40:38. The reading for Shabbat Parah is Numbers 19:1-22.
Gertrude Stein wrote it. Bart Simpson popularized it. The expression “don’t have a cow!” meaning “don’t get worked up over it” links last Shabbat to this week’s Shabbat Parah.
Last week we read about the Golden Calf, the infamous symbol of impatience, distrust and our difficulty in comprehending the Unknowable. The impetuous Israelites at Sinai should’ve heeded Moses’ message: “Don’t have a cow!” But they threw in their gold, out came the calf, and death and disappointment followed. It was a spectacular fail.
This Shabbat, after dedicating the tabernacle and concluding the book of Exodus, we skip ahead to Numbers 19 to meet a second young bovine: the inscrutable red heifer. It’s Torah’s ultimate riddle, the hardest commandment of all to understand, or to perform. Yet with just under a month until Pesach, we go out of our way to add it (as the maftir or concluding Torah reading).
In its day, the parah adumah or red heifer was so important, it was worth having a cow. The ashes of this rare, ruddy heifer were to “be kept by the Israelite community for use in the water of cleansing; it is for purification from sin” (Numbers 19:9) – and from the ritual defilement caused by contact with a corpse (19:13).
The red heifer purified those who are ritually impure, yet made the clean folk who touched it impure. It’s a koan for the kohen gadol, the high priest, and for the Jewish people ever since.
And in most generations, they simply didn’t have a cow. In the more than a millennium from Moshe to the destruction of the second temple, just nine red heifers were documented (Mishnah Parah 3:5) – less than one per century; zero for the entire first temple period. Maimonides writes that the 10th red heifer will be prepared by the messiah her/him/itself.
Reflect, or discuss: why now, this cow, just as Pesach prep begins in earnest?
The traditional reason is ritual purity — we must be tahor (clean/pure) for the Pesach sacrifice; this passage is a three-week-early reminder. Another: post-Purim, we need to re-purify.
But in these days of Dreamers and HIAS and immigration issues, let’s lift up Numbers 19:10: “It shall be for the children of Israel, and for the ger who resides among them, as a perpetual statute.” The law is for everyone in the land, citizen or not.
Who is this ger? It’s the immigrant, the Temporary Protected Status or Green Card holder. The “stranger,” “resident alien,” neighbor without the same social capital as the native-born. This ger is dependent on the protections provided by Torah, and by people of faith. By us. So never forget: you must not oppress (Exodus 22:20), and must even love (Leviticus 19:34), the ger — “for you know this stranger’s experience, having been strangers yourselves in the Land of Egypt.”
Egypt; Exodus; Empathy!
So don’t have a cow — but do defend immigrants, and the value they bring to our nation of immigrants. Make this part of your Pesach prep.
Question for discussion
How might the two cows connect? Be creative. Then consider this midrash: “The king says, ‘Let the mother come and clean up her child’s mess.’ Thus, the red heifer [mother] atones for the Golden Calf [child].”
Fred Scherlinder Dobb is rabbi of Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda and chairperson of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.