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Torah Commentary
Chukat (July 1, 2017)

Holy Cow!

Bettijane Eisenpreis

Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid. You shall give it to Eleazar the priest. It shall be taken outside the camp and slaughtered in his presence. Eleazar the priest shall take some of the blood with his finger and sprinkle it seven times toward the front of the tent of meeting... — Numbers 19:2-4

Parashat Chukat opens with the Lord commanding Moses and Aaron about the red cow, more commonly referred to as the “red heifer.” The command is detailed and specific. The heifer is to be “without blemish” and never to have borne a yoke. After he finds this perfect cow, the priest is to kill it, burn it and save its ashes to be used at some future time in the “water of lustration.” (“To lustrate,” the dictionary says, is “to purify by means of ceremony.”) The ceremony is usually for purification after contact with a corpse.

Traditional Judaism has long been fascinated with the red heifer. The cow, according to later commentators, should be at least 2 years old, some say as old as 5. Not only should it not have borne a yoke, but nothing, not even a piece of cloth, should have been laid on its body. As far as its color goes, obviously no cow is bright red, but reddish-brown is considered red in this case. However, the cow is not to have more than two hairs that are not of the color deemed “red.”

Most modern Jews read this passage, say “interesting,” and move on. Certain ultra-Orthodox Jews, however, are convinced that finding a red heifer is essential to the building of the Third Temple, and that, in turn, is a herald of the coming of the Messiah. It may or may not presage the End of Days, but attempting to build a third Temple would not be good for modern Israel. The Temple Mount is the home of Al Aqsa Mosque, and the Muslims certainly would have something to say if anyone attempted to disturb their holiest place of worship.

Another disturbing feature of a Third Temple would be the reinstating of animal sacrifice. After all, sacrifice was one of the principal activities performed in the First and Second temples. The majority of modern Jews shudder at the very thought of sacrifice. We don’t even think about how the steak or the lamb chops that appear magically on our dinner plates progressed to the supermarket from a cow or a sheep.

It was the demise of the Second Temple that paved the way for Rabbinic, as opposed to Priestly, Judaism. The word “rabbi” means “teacher.” Our modern rabbis are not the autocratic heads of our synagogues; they do not tell us what to think but help us study the many thinkers and thoughts in the Bible and subsequent bodies of Jewish literature. The synagogue is a house of worship, a house of study and a house of assembly, and there are many of them throughout the world, as opposed to one Temple that is only in Jerusalem. This is the heart of modern Judaism, and it has nothing to do with cows.

Bettijane Eisenpreis, a freelance writer, is a long-time member of Temple Emanu-El
and a regular participant in our Saturday morning Torah study group.

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