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In memory of my grandmother, Savta Miriam Machlah Stern, who passed away in Yerushalayim 43 years ago today, 17th Adar 5740.. Yehi zichrah baruch.

In most non-leap years (as this year 5783 is), Parashat Ki Tissa coincides with Shabbat Parah and is the Shabbat immediately following Purim.

On Shabbat Parah we remove two Torah-scrolls from the Ark. From the first we read the weekly Torah-reading (Parashat Ki Tissa, Exodus 30:11-34:35), and from the second, the chapter which commands the ritual of the פָּרָה אֲדֻמָּה, the Red Cow (Numbers 19:1-22).

Is it merely idle happenstance that the way our calendar is designed, these two coincide more often than not, and come immediately after Purim? Or are the messages of the three somehow connected?

To begin with Shabbat Parah:

The elaborate ritual of the Red Cow is the method whereby a Jew who had contracted טֻמְאַת מֵת, the spiritual impurity which results from coming into contact with the corpse of a dead Jew, is purified.

The Kohen [Priest] who performs the ritual has to be sequestered from his house seven days before beginning the ritual, just as the Kohen Gadol [High Priest] who administered the Yom Kippur Service in the Holy Temple was sequestered from his home seven days before Yom Kippur (Rambam, Laws of the Red Cow 2:2).

The Kohen would take a perfectly unblemished cow, entirely red (she could have no more than two non-red hairs), at least three years old, to whom no yoke had never been harnessed and who had never been pregnant, and take her out of the Israelite Camp in the desert; in later generations, he would take her to the Mount of Olives, outside of the walls of Jerusalem (Mishnah, Middot 1:3, 2:4 and Parah 3:6; Gemara, Yoma 16a; Rambam, Laws of Shekalim 4:8 and Laws of the Red Cow 3:1).

There someone other than the Kohen would slaughter the cow, and the S’gan Kohen Gadol [Deputy High Priest] would sprinkle its blood towards the Mishkan (in later generations towards the Holy Temple) seven times, and then burn the body together with cedar-wood, hyssop, and crimson-dyed wool.

The ashes were then mixed with water taken from a natural flowing river, and removed from the Camp (in later generations, from Jerusalem) to be stored in a ritually pure place.

This mixture was sprinkled on a ritually-impure Jew on the third day and the seventh day. He would then immerse himself in a mikveh, and with nightfall, he would become ritually pure.

Thus the entire process, from the Kohen Gadol’s isolation to the final purification, would take two weeks.

Now being ritually impure with the impurity of death did not interfere with a Jew’s life at all, for the most part: the sole limitations it imposed was that he was forbidden to enter the Holy Temple and to eat the meat of sacrifices.

This is the reason that Kohanim, who had to minister in the Holy Temple at all times, had to avoid ritual impurity in all but a very few exceptional cases (such as a Kohen who would enter a cemetery to bury his father or his unmarried sister). However, most Jews were ritually impure for most of the time.

The exception, of course, was Pesach, when every Jew had to eat of the Pesach-sacrifice; so every Jew therefore had to make every effort to be ritually pure in time for Pesach.

And so, in preparation for Pesach, our Sages enacted that on the penultimate Shabbat (occasionally the final Shabbat) before Nissan, every Shul would read this decree of the Red Cow: we still have more than two weeks to purify ourselves.

So much for the Red Cow. Now for Parashat Ki Tissa:

It is in Parashat Ki Tissa that we encounter the unfortunate episode of the golden calf and its aftermath.

A synthesis of some of the major commentaries (chiefly the Ohr ha-Chayyim, Rashi, the Ramban, and the Ibn Ezra ad loc., and Kuzari 1:92-98) puts the sin of the golden calf into perspective:

The people 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). That is to say, they wanted a replacement for the man Moshe, not for G-d. They had seen how G-d had appointed Moshe as His emissary to the nation, and assumed – wrongly – that He therefore needed an intermediary between Himself and them.

Now that Moshe had failed to return from the top of Mount Sinai, they sought something else that would play the role of intermediary.

The idea of a golden statue seemed to be permitted as their intermediary with G-d: after all, G-d Himself had commanded that in the Sanctuary, atop of the Ark containing the two Tablets of Stone, were to be two golden Cherubim.

So the golden calf wasn’t really an idol to replace G-d as an object of worship.

In any event, Aaron would certainly never have agreed to have participated in actual idolatry; and had his action been idolatry, it is impossible that he could have continued to serve as G-d’s Priest in the Mishkan for the rest of his life.

A small minority of the people indeed went way beyond the popular demand for the golden calf, and worshipped it as an idol, as a replacement for G-d and not as a replacement for the man Moshe.

Who were these idolaters?

– Their words betray their identity: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).

Obviously, Jews could not have used these words: had there been Jewish idolaters, they would have referred to “our gods…who brought us up out of the land of Egypt”. Anyone using the terminology “your gods… who brought you up” had to be outsiders speaking to Israel.

These were the “mixed multitude” of Exodus 12:38 – Egyptians and others who had tagged onto Israel in order to get out of Egypt while the going was good, insincere converts who only joined the nation for their own personal benefits.

This is the reason that when G-d told Moshe of what was happening, He told him that “your nation, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have become corrupt” (32:7).

What does G-d mean by “your nation, whom you brought up”? Suddenly Israel was no longer G-d’s nation? The clear inference is that G-d spoke of the mixed multitude – not the people whom He had brought up out of Egypt, but rather the people whom Moshe had allowed to come with them.

The response to the golden calf also puts the extent of the sin 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 approximately 600,000 adult men (12:37; compare the tribal census in Numbers Chapter 1, which gives a total of 603,550 men aged 20 and over). Following this, G-d sent a plague as further punishment (Exodus 32:35). But “the Torah does not say how many died in this plague, as it says how many were killed by the Levites, and how many died in the plagues after Korah’s rebellion and at Ba’al Peor , so maybe no one at all died in this plague, but G-d only condemned them to die before their time” (Ramban, Exodus 32:35).