Red Heifer

First Gate: Overview of this Shabbat

Parashat Ki Tissa in non-leap years invariably falls on the Shabbat immediately after Shushan Purim. And this year 5781, as in the majority of non-leap years, Parashat Ki Tissa coincides with Shabbat Parah.

Shabbat Parah is either the penultimate Shabbat or the last Shabbat of the month of Adar (in a leap year, of Adar II). The Maftir for this Shabbat is the statute of the Red Cow (Numbers 19:1-22), the method by which a Jew who had become ritually impure by coming into contact with a dead body would subsequently become purified.

The reason that we read this section on this Shabbat is to admonish the Children of Israel to purify themselves ahead of Pesach, because a Jew who was ritually impure could neither offer the Korban Pesach nor eat of its meat.

So this Shabbat is the confluence of three components of our calendar: the aftermath of Purim, Parashat Ki Tissa, and Shabbat Parah.

What common denominator do these three share?

Second Gate: Purim

The Talmud (Megillah 12a) records a discussion between Rabbi Shimon bar Yochay (Rashbi) and his students. They asked their master: Why did the Jews of that generation deserve extermination? And Rashbi threw the question back at his students: You tell me!

They gave the simple answer which the Megillat Esther itself suggests: “Because they enjoyed themselves at the evil man’s [Achashverosh’s] feast”.

But Rashbi rejected his students’ explanation. This would explain why the Jews of Shushan deserved to be killed – but Haman’s decree was not limited to Shushan: it extended throughout all 127 provinces of the Persian Empire.

So Rashbi’s students conceded defeat, and asked the master for his explanation. He went further back into history: Haman’s decree of genocide was because the Jews had bowed en masse to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol (Daniel 3:1).

So according to Rashbi, the sin had happened two generations earlier, but G-d deferred His punishment to give the Jews time to repent.

Rashbi’s students challenged their master’s explanation: If they worshipped Nebuchadnezzar’s idol, then surely they deserved death! Why, then, were they reprieved?

And Rashbi countered that they had only pretended to worship the idol – so G-d responded with only a pretend threat. Sure, Jews from throughout the Babylonian Empire bowed to Nebuchadnezzar’s idol – but of course they didn’t really believe in it! They bowed to it out of fear of repercussions for disobeying the king, due to social pressure, their desire to prove themselves loyal subjects – any number of reasons. But they certainly did not impute any real power to that idol.

(We can compare this with contemporary Jews in the Diaspora who put Xmas trees in their homes. Of course they have not converted, of course they do not really believe in other religions; they simply want to integrate into their societies.)

And that being the case, the Jews of the Persian Empire did not really deserve to be exterminated. Just as their bowing to the idol was no more than a façade, so too G-d’s response to them, the threat of extermination, was no more than a façade.

Third Gate: Parashat Ki Tissa – the golden calf

A superficial reading of the episode of the golden calf and Moshe’s subsequent smashing of the Tablets of Stone (Exodus 32:1-33:23) suggests idolatry – a most heinous sin – which the entire nation committed.

But was it really?

Moshe ascended Mount Sinai, telling the people he would return after 40 days, meaning on the 41st day from his ascent. The people misunderstood, and expected him to return on the 40th day. And when their leader failed to return, they were thrown into panic (Shabbat 89a, Yerushalmi Ta’anit 4:5, Shemot Rabbah 41:7).

So they demanded the golden calf, “because this man Moshe, who brought us up out of the land of Egypt – we do not know what has happened to him!” (Exodus 32:1). Clearly, they wanted a replacement for the man Moshe, not for G-d. G-d had appointed Moshe as His emissary to the nation, and they assumed – wrongly – that He therefore needed an intermediary between Himself and them. When Moshe failed to return from Mount Sinai, they sought an alternative intermediary.

A golden statue seemed to be permitted: after all, G-d Himself had commanded that in the Mishkan, atop of the Ark containing the two Tablets of Stone, were to be two golden Cherubim (Exodus 25:18-20).

Certainly Aaron would never have collaborated with actual idolatry; and had his action been idolatry, it is inconceivable that he could have continued to serve as G-d’s Kohen [Priest] for the rest of his life.

Only a small minority of the people went way beyond the popular demand and worshipped the golden calf as an idol, as a replacement for G-d and not as a replacement for the man Moshe. And these were outsiders of the עֵרֶב רַב, the mixed multitude (Exodus 12:38) of Egyptians and others who tagged onto Israel to get out of Egypt while the going was good, among whom were insincere converts who only joined the nation for their own personal benefits.

This is why they proclaimed “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4) – “your gods who brought you up” rather than “our gods who brought us up”. And this is why G-d told Moshe that “your nation, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have become corrupt” (32:7) – your nation whom you brought up, not My nation whom I brought up. The mixed multitude whom Moshe had allowed to come with them, not the Jews whom G-d had brought out of Egypt.

Even of the erev rav, only a small minority participated. The Midrash (Mechilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, Bo, Massechta de-Pis’cha 14) records three opinions of how many erev rav there were: according to Rabbi Yishmael there were 1,200,000; according to Rabbi Akiva 2,400,000; and according to Rabbi Natan, 3,600,000. And only 40,000 of these initiated the demand for the golden calf (Tanhuma, Ki Tissa 19). 40,000 out of all the erev rav – maybe 3⅓ %, maybe 1⅔ %, maybe just 1⅑ % of the total.

And to put it into perspective: Moshe instructed the Levites – the men of his own tribe, the only tribe which had had nothing at all to do with the golden calf – to slay everyone who had worshipped it as an idol. Consequently they killed about three thousand men (32:26-28) – a tiny fraction of the erev rav, an infinitesimal fraction of the entire nation.

Following this, G-d sent a plague as further punishment (Exodus 32:35). “The Torah does not say how many died in this plague…so maybe no one at all died in this plague, but G-d only condemned them to die before their time” (Ramban, commentary to Exodus 32:35).

And then life continued unchanged: the Clouds of Glory still covered them by day and the Pillar of Fire still warmed and led them by night; and G-d gave them the two Tablets of Stone anew to replace those which Moshe had smashed.

The picture of the entire nation having committed idolatry is clearly wrong.

Fourth Gate: Shabbat Parah

G-d gave us the statute of the Red Cow about a year and a month after the sin of the golden calf.

This was the final mitzvah that the generation who left Egypt received; it was G-d’s farewell message to the generation that was condemned to die in the desert for the sin initiated by the ten spies (Numbers Chapters 13-14).

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 19:8 and Tanhuma, Chukkat 8) relates the mitzvah of the Red Cow back to the golden calf: “This is like a maid-servant whose son dirtied the palace of a king. The king said: Let the mother come and clean up the filth! Thus G-d said: Let the Cow come and atone for what the calf did!”.

And this casts a whole new light – not on the Red Cow of the Maftir, but on the golden calf of the Torah-reading.

The ritual of the Red Cow purifies a Jew who had become defiled with the impurity caused by contact with a dead body. But contracting impurity is no sin at all; most Jews were (and are) ritually impure for most of the time. The only time that a Jew was commanded to be ritually pure was when entering the Holy Temple, which he was commanded to do solely on the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Succot).

Other than these occasions, ritual impurity did not interfere with a Jew’s life at all.

(The Kohanim had other rules: because their task was to minister in the Holy Temple, they had to remain ritually pure at all times. Thus if a Kohen contracted ritual impurity, he was obligated to be purified at the earliest opportunity. But that is another subject for another time.)

Indeed, not only is coming into contact with a corpse not a sin – it is one of the greatest of all the mitzvot! Burying a dead Jew, or escorting a dead Jew to his burial with the funeral cortege, is such a great mitzvah that a Jew who does it is guaranteed a reward in this world, even while his main reward is reserved for the World to Come!

Burying a dead Jew is called חֶסֶד שֶׁל אֱמֶת – the truest loving-kindness of all. And it inevitably involves contracting ritual impurity – the impurity caused by contact with a dead body.

Clearly, contracting ritual impurity is not a sin that needs any atonement. For sure, it demands purification, but not as the result of any sin. It is, rather, the result of one of the holiest of all the mitzvot.

And this is the allusion which the Midrash uses to symbolising the events of the golden calf! Clearly, then, the golden calf wasn’t a heinous sin after all.

For sure, the Children of Israel needed cleansing, and G-d would indeed provide it. For over a year He had let them bitterly regret their error – the first and most important step for any process of repentance (Rambam, Laws of Repentance 2:2; Rabbeinu Yonah develops this theme very powerfully in The Gates of Repentance, First Gate, Section 10).

But as the Red Cow indicates, the golden calf was not the heinous sin that it appeared to be.

The Path that connects all the Gates

Let us regard the episode of the golden calf as a kind of a spiritual inoculation against idolatry.

To inoculate against physical disease, some form of the real disease is injected into the body – either a less harmful form of the actual illness (such as cow-pox to vaccinate against smallpox, cow-pox being far milder than smallpox), or a weakened version of the disease in which the germs are dead or weakened, or by injecting artificially-constructed partial cells of the disease.

By absorbing components which resemble the real disease, the body learns how to combat the actual disease.

And similarly, spiritually inoculating the Jewish nation against idolatry involved a construction which resembled idolatry. For sure, just as with certain physical inoculations, this spiritual inoculation carried some unpleasant side-effects. But it was not the real disease – it was not actual idolatry, it merely resembled it. And by experiencing a facsimile of idolatry, the nation could learn how to resist genuine idolatry.

G-d allowed the generation to wallow in their regret over what they had done for over a year. Thus they could learn the severity of idolatry through their own personal experience.

Well over a year later, G-d bade farewell to this generation by giving them the statute of the Red Cow – then let them ponder its significance for the rest of their lives. In the decades left to them wandering in the desert, they must surely have understood eventually: the episode of the golden calf was a lesson which the nation had to undergo in its infancy.

And more than 900 years later, their descendants in the Valley of Dura would stand before Nebuchadnezzar’s idol in the Plain of Dura and bow to it. Like the golden calf, it was but a pretence of idolatry. And like the golden calf, it inoculated them for generations – for centuries – to come against the dangers of actual idolatry.

The generation which entered the Land of Israel under Joshua had to fight against the Canaanite idolaters. And it is no coincidence that immediately after the débâcle of the golden calf, G-d enjoined the Jews:

“Guard for yourself what I command you today: Behold! I drive out before you the Amorite and the Canaanite and the Hittite and the Perizzite and the Hivite and the Jebusite. Guard yourself lest you forge a covenant with the inhabitant of the Land to which you are coming...smash apart their altars and break their pillars and cut down their idolatrous trees, because you shall not bow down to another god” (Exodus 34:11-14).

And a millennium later, the generation which returned from Babylonian/Persian-Median exile would also eventually have to take up arms and fight for their national sovereign freedom against the Seleucid Greek idolaters who were occupying their Land.

The experience of both demonstrated, painfully clearly, how seductive idolatry could be. So those generations which were about to return to the Land of Israel needed a pretence of idolatry in order to provide the spiritual inoculation against idolatry.

Maybe this explains why it was necessary for the final Return to Zion to be led, in its founding decades, by secular Jews. We, as a nation, had to see the failure of secularism in order to inoculate subsequent generations against the allure of secularism or assimilation into the Islamic culture which surrounds us in Israel.

And it seems to be working: there are more ba’alei teshuva, returners to authentic Judaism, in this generation than any generation since Persia in the days of Mordechai and Esther. And this phenomenon is more powerful in Israel than anywhere else in the world.

Purim is behind us, and Shabbat Parah prepares us for the purification necessary to celebrate the rapidly-approaching Pesach, the ultimate Festival of Redemption.

Daniel Pinner is a veteran immigrant from England, a teacher by profession and a Torah scholar who has been active in causes promoting Eretz Israel and Torat Israel.