Embracing the mystery of Torah’s little red cow

Rabbi James Stone Goodman

By Rabbi James Stone Goodman

This week’s portion opens onto the mystery mitzvah of the Torah: the red heifer, the little red cow, parah adumah

We have a category of Torah mystery mitzvahs called chukkot — the reasons remain undeciphered. 

I’m exhausted by the reasons given and the reasons withheld for mitzvahs. I don’t care about the reasons. Let’s just do the mitzvahs and lead more purposeful lives, though there is the sense from Maimonides that if we understood this one, the one about the little red cow, we would understand everything.

What is it about parah adumah that is so mysterious? It has to do with purification and defilement. The act of the mitzvah of the red heifer is designed to purify, yet the rites of the mitzvah itself are contaminating (killing the cow, grinding it up, etc.). 

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I bet Sherlock Holmes could have unraveled the mystery of the little red heifer for us and opened up all of the mitzvahs, but he is a fictional character. Then the problem becomes how to consult with a fictional character — thus another conundrum, though that one I could untangle myself (I know how fiction holds more reality than reality).

And I think I understand how the same activity can be both purifying and defiling. Maybe I could explain it, how something can be defiling at one moment and purifying another moment. I know what it feels like to have performed a deed that I assumed was purifying but turned out to be defiling, and I have been in the thick of a defiling activity that ended up purifying.

I’ve spent a good deal of time visiting inside prisons, an extreme environment of high potential for defilement in which I’ve witnessed exceedingly purifying activities. That’s one easy example I can bring down without insulting anybody.

Someone I know saw angels as an infant and pointed them out to us, never in expressly holy environments but often in the cereal aisles of one of our local grocery stores. I never doubt for a moment the authenticity of vision; the holy rising in the unholy, and I know myself too well the un-holy rising out of the holy. Here, I may be coming closer to insulting institutionalists among readership, though I don’t think anyone would argue that aisle three might be ultimate. 

The point is to put our expectations away. They are not helping us see the truth as it rises on its own. The little red cow reminds me that I think I know, but I don’t. My expectations are showing and, instead of logic, the really great mitzvahs twist right around on the axis of paradox and ambiguity, mystery and enigma. 

Thus my mantra: Keep my mind open and my big mouth shut. I think I know, but I don’t.