Parashat Ki Tissa – Shabbat Parah

By Rabbi Dorit Edut

Cows and Kashering for Pesah

Passover, or Pesah, marks a half-way point in our Jewish calendar. Though it comes in the first month of the Jewish year, Nissan, it is actually six months since Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. During this month before Passover, we mark almost each Shabbat with special preparations for this important holiday. For example, this week is Shabbat Parah when we read an additional portion about the very unusual ritual of the red heifer, the cow that the High Priest sacrificed and whose ashes were then used to purify those made impure via contact with a corpse. There have been efforts made to understand the deeper meaning of this ritual. For example, in Midrash Tanhuma (Hukat, 8) it says:

“A young woman’s child once dirtied the royal palace. The king said: ‘Let his mother come and clean up her child’s mess.’ By the same token, God says ‘ Let the Heifer atone for the deed of the Calf.'”

In other words, the Red Heifer atonement ritual is meant as an antidote to the sin of the Golden Calf. The red cow and the golden cow. One symbolizing the return to life and God’s laws while being purified from contact with death, the other symbolizing the seduction of idolatry, the turning to hedonism and anarchy, which voids life of any meaning and leads to a deadening of one’s soul. Why are we being reminded of these two different symbols as we begin our preparations for Pesah? What do we learn from this contrast that relates to our lives today?

For one, we might think of our whole cleaning process before Pesah as a way of getting rid of the stale, the useless, things that ‘deaden’ our lives. Both the Red Heifer ritual and the aftermath of the Golden Calf involve making a kind of cleansing solution with water, so we too use water, the symbol of life in Judaism, and other cleansers to wash away the accumulated “dirt” of our surroundings in preparation for Pesah and the coming spring season. Rabbi Shefa Gold, in her commentary on Parashat Hukat, speaks of the deeper spiritual meaning of the ingredients used in the Red Heifer potion, mentioned in Numbers 19:6: the cedar represents pride, hyssop is for humility, and the crimson is for passion. When mixed together with water, which she calls “the compassionate flow of life”, we create “the perfect alchemical formula for our renewal.”

As we prepare for Pesah we look both backwards and forwards. Looking backwards, the sin of the Golden Calf reminds us of our first major backsliding after leaving Egypt and receiving the Torah. According to Midrash Sh’mot Rabbah 51:6, the two Divine crowns which each Israelite received  at Sinai upon reciting the words “Na-aseh v’nishma – We will do and we will obey” (Ex 24:7), were then removed from each person and human mortality was reinstated. Looking forwards, the Red Heifer ritual  confronts the mystery of death, but, as Rashi explains in his comment on the three features of this special cow, the word “perfect” alludes to the Israelites’ loss of perfection through the Golden Calf sin.

“Let this come and atone for them so they can regain their perfection.”

Yes, there is hope that we can regain that state of spiritual perfection if we are willing to give up the ‘golden calves’ in our lives and follow the ethical teachings of the Torah. Follow the ‘red cow’ practices which restore us to life.

Keeping the symbolism of these two cows in mind is especially important at this half-way point in the Jewish year. It IS a time to take stock of where we are going, of what has happened since we began the process of teshuvah six months ago at Rosh Hashanah, of turning from old habits, thoughts, and actions that were not the expression of the best of ourselves. Have we made any progress in these changes we foresaw in ourselves or have we slid back into the old habits? Before we can really make the Seder or taste that first bit of matzah, we need to do our own spiritual house cleaning. And even if we do not succeed in cleaning up every single crumb in our lives, we need to try for the ones we surely can pick up and discard. Let us do the cleaning that will help us reach next Rosh Hashanah having made major strides (moo-ved forward) in the improvement of our lives and in those of the others to whom we are connected.

Shabbat Shalom!


Rabbi Dorit Edut (’06) teaches at the Downtown Synagogue of Detroit and heads the Detroit Interfaith Outreach Network