05 March 2021
When we need a change
of heart and some ritual
There is a major traffic hub in Dublin known as the ‘Red Cow.’ It offers connections between major provincial buses, the Luas light rail, and a convenient hotel that has had new significance at a time when people travelling between Dublin and the provinces for funerals or hospital appointments need heart-felt assurances of almost ritual-like cleanliness.
I am not aware of the origins of the name ‘Red Cow.’ But there is a Biblical story about a red cow or heifer that has its own significance when it comes to heart-felt needs for ritual-like cleanliness.
Passover or Pesah, which begins this year at sunset on Saturday 27 March, marks a half-way point in the Jewish calendar. Although it comes in Nissan, the first month in the Jewish year, it is actually six months since Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.
In the month before Passover, each Shabbat is marked with special preparations for this important holiday. For example, last weekend was Shabbat Zakhor, while this weekend is Shabbat Parah (שבת פרה).
On this day, an additional Torah portion (Numbers 19: 1-22) is read about the unusual ritual of the red heifer, the cow that the High Priest sacrificed and whose ashes were then used to purify those who were made ritually impure through contact with a corpse.
It is an obscure ritual that may seem arcane in today’s world. But at one time the Red Heifer atonement ritual was seen as a contrast to or an antidote to the sin of the Golden Calf.
In this contrast of the red cow and the golden cow, one symbolises the return to life and God’s laws while being purified from contact with death, while the other symbolises the seduction of idolatry, the turning to hedonism and anarchy, which takes away any meaning from life and leads to a deadening of one’s soul.
Perhaps this additional portion was chosen because it reminds people that the whole cleaning process before Pesah is a way of getting rid of those stale, useless things that ‘deaden’ people’s lives.
Both the Red Heifer ritual and the aftermath of the Golden Calf involve making a kind of cleansing solution with water, the symbol of life, and other cleansers to wash away the accumulated dirt of 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 tall cedar represents pride, the low-growing hyssop is for humility, and the crimson is for passion.
She suggests, ‘I will need both pride and humility in order to accomplish my journey of purification. Pride allows me to stand tall enough to see the path ahead, and humility connects me to the earth beneath my feet … Crimson, my passion, … adds my own holy fire to these fires of purification.’
When mixed together with living water, which she calls ‘the compassionate flow of life,’ they create ‘the perfect alchemical formula for our renewal.’
This additional portion read on this day offers the hope of returning to a state of spiritual perfection if we give up the ‘golden calves’ in our lives and return to God’s ways.
The haftarah – Ezekiel 36: 16-36 in the Sephardic tradition and Ezekiel 36: 16-38 among Ashkenazim – also deals with issues of being cleansed from contamination: ‘I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh’ (Ezekiel 36: 25, 26).
As the extra reading from the Book of Numbers on this shabbat presents an ancient rite of detoxification for those who have come in contact with the dead, so too the reading from Ezekiel brings the promise of being purified by God and of being brought back to life with a new heart and a new spirit.
There are times when we need a change of heart and to do our own spiritual house-cleaning. Even when we do not manage to clean out every single crumb in our lives, we need to search for the ones we surely can pick up and discard, and even – at times – to become light-hearted instead of heavy-hearted in the presence of God.