This week’s parashah, Ki Tissa, tells the famous story of the eigel masseichah – ‘molten calf’ (Exodus 32:1ff.): Moses away on Mount Sinai, and fearing that they have been abandoned, the recently-liberated slaves clamour to ‘make a god that will go before us’. With Aaron’s assistance, they created a great cow out of the gold they took from the Egyptians – and early the next day, they offered sacrifices, ate and drank and danced around it.
The Haftarah for Ki Tissa, First Kings 18:1-39, relates the story of how Elijah confronted the priests of Ba’al by challenging them to participate in a ritual involving bulls – parim. The connection with the portion is clear: idol-worship. This year, Shabbat Ki Tissa coincides with Shabbat Parah – the Shabbat of the ‘Cow’ – when we also read a second passage at the beginning of Parashat Chukkat (Numbers 19:1ff.), which tells us about a chukkat Torah, a ‘statute of the Torah’ involving a parah adummah – a ‘red cow’. So, we have an eigel, a male ‘calf’, several parim, ‘bulls’, and a parah, a fully grown ‘cow’. What is the significance of these creatures?
The ‘molton calf’ – eigel masseichah – was obviously an idol. The priests of Ba’al engaged in idol-worship. And what of chukkat Torah – the ‘statute of the Torah’ involving a ‘red cow’ – parah addumah? Although the passage in Parashat Chukkat, Numbers 19, includes some confusing elements, the message is clear: the cow itself was not an object of worship; the ritual which required that the cow be slaughtered and burned with ‘cedar wood, hyssop and crimson [stuff]’ – including its blood and its dung – and its ashes gathered and deposited in a ‘clean place’ – makom tahor – outside the camp, was a rite of purification for those who had contact with a corpse. For our ancestors, when a living person touched a dead person, she or he transgressed the boundary between life and death, and so it was necessary for them to be ‘purified’ before they could be restored to the camp.
The clue to how to make sense of all these texts in terms of Jewish teaching can be found in the special Haftarah for Shabbat Parah (Ezekiel 36:22-36). For the prophet Ezekiel, purification is a spiritual issue centred on the acknowledgement of the Eternal (36:24-26): “I will take you from among the nations and gather you from all the lands [of your dispersion] and bring you [back] to your land. / Then I will sprinkle cleansing waters upon you, and you shall be cleansed of all your impurities; and I will cleanse you of all your idols (gilluleichem). / I will give you a new heart (leiv chadash) and a new spirit (rua’ch chadashah) will I put within you; I will remove the heart of stone from your body, and give you a heart of flesh.”