PARSHAT KEE TEESA
THE GOLD COW AND THE RED COW
“Then he [Aaron] took from them and cast in a mold and made it into a molten calf. And they exclaimed, this is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!” (Exodus 32:4)
When I was a child my mother used to share a nursery rhyme with me. “I never saw a purple cow, I never hope to see one. But I can tell you anyhow, I’d rather see than be one.” I am not sure the point of the nursery rhyme; I guess it meant to be happy I am not a purple cow.. But this week we do read about colored cows. In the first Torah we read about a gold cow, or perhaps more accurately, a golden calf. In the second Torah we read about a red cow, or perhaps more accurately, a red heifer. Are these two cows related in some way? That is the idea I want to explore.
There is a principle in Jewish law, hapeh sh’asar hu hapeh sh’hiter, “the mouth that forbids is the mouth that permits (Mishnah Ketubot 2:5). If a woman comes from a distant place and says, “I was married but now I am divorced,” we believe both halves of her statement. By saying she was married, she became forbidden to marry anyone else. But by continuing to say that she is divorced, she is now permitted to marry someone else. The same mouth that first forbid her is now the mouth that permits her. The Talmud gives several other examples.
The idea is that the same thing that could make something forbidden can now make something permitted. In a similar way, the same thing that brings someone down can now bring someone up. The very item that can make someone sick can now heal. Perhaps the best example is vaccines. We consider a pathogen that can make us sick and find a similar substance to make us well. Smallpox used to be a horrible scourge. Doctors took a similar pathogen that was less lethal,, cow pox, and began to vaccinate people with it. Thanks to the cow pox pathogen, smallpox has now disappeared from the face of the earth. What brought us down can now bring us up.
That is the idea behind the golden calf and the red heifer. After the exodus from Egypt and the moment we stood at Mt. Sinai, the people immediately sin. Frightened that Moses would not return from the mountain, they force Aaron to build them a golden calf. They then worship the calf, crying out, this is our God. Of course, Moses in his fury breaks the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. It is a sin that needs forgiveness.
In the second Torah we read a very strange law about a red heifer. The ashes of the heifer are mixed with various plants and poured on any person who has become impure. The red heifer purifies. We read this shortly before Passover so that people will go into the festival in a state of purity. Of course, today nobody has ever found a totally red heifer. But there are people actively looking. They need it to someday rebuild a Third Temple, so people can enter it in a state of purity.
The Rabbis related the two events. It was a gold cow that made us impure. And it will be a red cow to make us pure once again. That which makes us impure is precisely that which makes us pure. It is a coincidence that both these Torah readings fall in the same week. It does not happen every year. But it teaches the lesson that sometimes we need that which brings us down to bring us up once again.
This can be relevant for those struggling with bad behavior today. The great teacher Maimonides speaks about what true teshuvah “repentance” is. We must find whatever led us to sin in the first place. Then we must confront that same thing and see if we have changed our ways. The alcoholic must go to a place where alcohol is served to see if she can control her addiction. A man who cheats on his wife must face the same opportunity to cheat to prove to himself that he has become a new person. Only whatever brought us down can now bring us up.
There is a deep lesson in the juxtaposition of two very different Torah readings. Often in life we are brought down. But whatever brings us down can now be used to bring us up.