While it’s been years since I’ve watched The Simpsons, a wildly popular television cartoon series, I remember the words that Bart Simpson used to blurt out whenever he made someone angry. He’d say “Don’t have a cow, man!”
This week, we actually read about two cows, or at least two variations on the bovine theme. In our Torah reading from Parashat Ki Tissa, we read the shameful episode of the Golden Calf. Moses was atop Mt. Sinai for an extended period of time and the people became impatient. They felt a need to have a tangible representation of the Divine and with the help of Aaron, Moses’ brother, they fashioned this Golden Calf which resulted in tragedy and death. Moses broke the Tablets of the Law and thousands died as a result of their idolatry.
This is also one of a series of four special Shabbatot leading up to Passover. In it we read about the Red Heifer (the Parah Adumah), whose ashes were mixed with water and other ingredients as a purifying agent for those who were impure. This is particularly apropos because in the times of the Tabernacle and the Temple, it was essential for all Jews to be spiritually and physically pure in time for the Paschal sacrifice. The process was very complicated and enigmatic. In fact, as part of this process, the impure became pure and those who assisted with the purification themselves became impure!
The juxtaposition of the Golden Calf to the Red Heifer (also a young cow) is quite telling. How might these two animals be linked?
Consider a scene which you might have witnessed or experienced personally in our own lives. A child is screaming and crying and making a scene in a supermarket. The angry parent may say “If you don’t stop crying, I’ll GIVE YOU SOMETHING to cry about!”
I once heard a theory that this was God’s reaction to the Golden Calf. He was, in essence, saying “You fashioned this cow for idolatrous purposes for absolutely no reason. You have witnessed My miracles and My love and you should have had faith in Me. But instead, you resorted to this abomination. As a result, I’m going to give you a most complicated Mitzvah, the most impossible Mitzvah to understand in the entire Torah, and that won’t make any more sense to you than the Golden Calf made to Me!”
Sometimes, it’s hard to understand our ancestors who had witnessed so many of God’s wonders yet still rebelled against Him. Other times, it’s difficult for us to understand God, especially when we are faced with commandments that are beyond our comprehension.
The truth is that we may never find answers to all of our questions, but we can surely enjoy reinterpreting timeless biblical texts and trying to make sense of them ourselves. It may be frustrating, but it’s a glorious journey. So, as Bart Simpson put it so eloquently, “Don’t have a cow, man!”
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky