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The Golden Calf and the Red Heifer: A Bovine Coincidence?

This week in Parashat Hukkat, we read about the commandment of the Red Heifer. Dr. Shula Laderman, lecturer of Judaism and the Arts at the Schechter Institutes of Jewish Studies, uses texts from Rashi and Midrash, as well as the work of Israeli artist Avner Moriah, to highlight the similarities and differences between these two stories.

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The first commandment in Parashat Hukkat concerns the Red Heifer. The Israelites are told to bring a red cow on which no yoke has been laid and has no blemish. It says that Eleazar, the priest, is to take the Red Heifer outside the camp, slaughter it, dip his finger in its blood and sprinkle it towards the tabernacle seven times. Eleazar is to see that the slaughtered cow was to be burned and gather cedar wood, hyssop, and crimson stuff and throw it all into the fire that consumed the cow. Being involved with the performance of this entire ritual, the priest becomes defiled and has to cleanse himself and his clothes and stay outside the camp till evening. A purified man had to gather the ashes of the burned cow and deposit them outside the camp, in a clean place. We understand from the text that the Red Heifer that was slaughtered and burned to ash for the “water of lustration” could purify the defiled and at the same time defile the priest who prepared it.

Avner Moriah’s painting figures a Red Heifer in a frontal view so we can study this entirely red animal in detail. Its eyes, which seem almost human, are staring at us, and its depiction allows us to see its front, back, all four legs, and tail. Eleazar, the High priest who’s to oversee the ritual, is pictured on the left, also figured in red which is thought to be the color of sin, as we read in Isaiah 1:18: “Be your sins like crimson, they can turn snow-white. Be they red as dyed wool they shall become like fleece.” Eleazar is holding a knife, and it is clear that the animal is about to be slaughtered. Green and blue hills separate the figures of the priest and the Red Heifer from the round-topped tents behind them, indicating that the action is taking place outside of the camp.

Viewing and studying this mysterious ritual of the Red Heifer, we might consider the juxtaposition of the priest and the cow to be in conjunction with the idea of defilement and purification as was described in the story of the Golden Calf: where “[Moses] took the calf that the Israelites had made and burned it; he [Moses] ground it to powder and strewed it upon the water and so made the Israelites drink it” (Exod. 32:20).

Interestingly, Rashi in commenting on the verse that instructs the people to “bring to you a red Heifer”, uses a midrash of Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan that connects the mysterious ritual of the red cow with the sin of the golden calf.

The midrash relates to Chapter 19 verse 2: “They shall take unto you their own”. Just as the Israelites brought their golden earrings to make the golden calf, they are now being told to atone for their sins through the red cow.

Here Rashi (19:22) cites Rabbi Moshe Hadarshan, who explains how symbolically the red cow was to atone for the sin of the golden calf. The parable is about a slave girl whose young son defiled the king’s palace with his excrement, and she, therefore, was required to clean it: “Let the mother (the red cow) clean up the child’s mess (golden calf)”, thus repent for his defilement.

Although the Red Heifer is considered one of God’s statutes (hukkim) that have no rational explanation, we can perhaps sense here a deliberate reminder of the sin of the golden calf, and relate it to a collective memory of a commandment enjoined to reinforce the sanctity of the people of Israel.

Shavua Tov from Schechter

**Beginning immediately after Pesach and until August, Parashat Hashavua in the Diaspora is one week ‘behind’ the Parasha in Israel. Shavua Tov@Schechter will follow the Diaspora schedule.

Dr. Shula Laderman worked for many years as a computer programmer and planner at Shaare Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem. While working there, she studied at  the Hebrew University in Jerusalem towards her Ph.D.,  which she received in  2000. Her topic of research is the “Artist as an interpreter” – visual interpretation of the Bible in Jewish and Christian Art. She is the author of: Images of Cosmology in Jewish and Byzantine Art- God’s Blueprint of Creation  and is co-author with the artist Avner Moriah of: The Illuminated Torah. She taught for many years at Bar Ilan University as well as at the Schechter Institute, where she continues to teach in the Judaism and the Arts track (which she directed in the past).

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