[This is going to be one of my truly random musings. Every once in a while, I still try to write more of a stream of consciousness musing. Sometimes the results are coherent, sometimes less so. I hope my thought processes at least tweak the interest of your own thought processes.]
I'll bet you think you know what I'm going to write about. Hmmmmm. Parashat Chukat/Balak. Red Heifer. Aha! Holy Cow! That must be it.
Well, parashat Chukat does indeed begin with the commandments regarding the purification ritual using the unblemished red cow. And Talmud, the Midrashim and many other commentaries devote many passages to these instructions and this ritual. And this ritual has assumed new importance in contemporary times, as groups seeking to prepare for the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and resumption of the priestly services, make all sorts of strange alliances in attempting to secure a source for pure, unblemished red heifers. It's a strange mixture of extreme fundamentalist Jewish and Christian groups. Both groups want to see the Temple rebuilt, but for rather different reasons. The Jewish groups seek, hopefully, to insure the reality of "Ki mitzion tetze Torah u'd'var Ad-nai mirushalyim" (The Torah shall go forth from Zion, and Gd's word from Jerusalem) through the rebuilding of the Temple. I suspect most Christian groups seek to have the Temple rebuilt only so that it can precipitate the last days and give reality to the words of the Book of Revelation. Scary stuff. Nevertheless, the Jewish groups have found themselves working with some Christian fundamentalist ranchers in an attempt to breed pure red heifers. For me, it would be wonderful to see the Temple speedily rebuilt in our times, but perhaps we will have to settle for a metaphoric rebuilding. When the peace that, with Gd's help, will soon come to Israel is a reality, it will be as if the Temple once again stands on Har Habayit (the Temple Mount,) if only in a figurative sense. For surely only Gd can bring about the miracle of peace between Israel and its enemies. And this peace would be a shining light, an example to all the world, and Gd's instructions and words will indeed go forth from Zion and Jerusalem.
But I digress. For the "Holy Cow!" I speak of is not the red heifer. It is not the rebuilding of the Temple that is on my mind today. No, the "holy cow!" I am thinking of is a slang usage. The "Holy Cow!" of reaction.
Picture yourself, for just a minute, as Balak, price of Moab. Your military advisors have given their reports on the progress of the Israelites. First, you learn that these slaves defeated mighty Pharaoh with the help of their Gd, and escaped from Egypt. The rumors are probably an exaggeration, you think. Surely the sea did not part to allow the Israelites to cross upon dry land, and then return and drown the Egyptian army. Nevertheless, an impressive feat of escape. But you are Balak, son of Zippor, who is King of all Moab. You are a real man. You are not at all surprised that those haughty Egyptians, so full of themselves, thinking themselves so civilized and better than everyone else, have grown fat and lazy and arrogant. Such people are easily defeated.
Then you hear the next report, of the encounter between this rabble of slaves and mighty Edom. No fools, these Israelites. They realize how lucky they were to escape the Egyptians, so, when, Edom makes a show of force, the decide to find a different route. They head around Edom towards Canaan. The King of Arad met them in battle at Atharim and held the Israelites off. It is said that then these Israelites pleaded with their Gd, who then delivered up the Canaanites to them. Quite a fickle Gd, you think. Where was this Gd when Israel faced the might of Edom?! "Posh," you think. "These Israelites are no threat to us!"
"But, Mighty Prince Balak," say your military advisors, "the tide certainly seems to have turned in favor of these Israelites. After defeating Arad, they waltzed right on into Jahaz and defeated Sihon, King of the Amorites, And remember, O prince, how Sihon had forced upon us the bitter taste of defeat. If these people are mightier than Sihon, we should fear them."
"And, your highness," adds another advisor, "they swiftly went on to defeat Og of Bashan. And now they are on our doorstep. Their Gd must truly be with them."
"Holy Cow!" says Balak. "We'd better do something. It seems these people are numerous, and have had a string of victories. How can we stop them?" (See, I told you I had a different "holy cow!" in mind. Even the Torah has a connection, for it says that Balak said to the elders "Now this horde will lick clean all that is about us as an *ox* licks up the grass of the field.") Numbers 22:4, JPS, emphasis mine.)
Perhaps the "holy cow" I am thinking of is Am Yisrael itself. Sent by Gd to work a purification of all the peoples of the earth. Sadly, these purification rituals involved slaughter. In our politically correct times, the very idea of Gd delivering up to Israel its enemies, so that they may slaughter them, is most troubling and difficult. Just as, to some, the idea of again slaughtering red heifers and offering sacrifices in a restored Temple is repugnant.
But we can't ignore what Torah tells us. Balak, frightened out of his wits, sends for Balaam to curse Israel. After all, the Israelites had just defeated the kings to whom Moab paid tribute for protection! But Gd puts a blessing in Balaam's mouth. There is no greater proof that the victories of the Israelites are part and parcel of Gd's plan. Gd meant for the Israelites to defeat others in battle. And that means people die. There's no getting around that.
It's no wonder that some have sought to divorce the Gd of Israel from the Gd that is worshipped today. And not just Christians, but Jews as well. Though, officially, the churches have denounced the idea that the Gd of Israel is the bad Gd and the Gd of the Christians is the loving Gd, the idea is far more prevalent than many realize. But the difference is in how Gd, as portrayed in Tanakh, is dealt with. We can say, "Oh, the Gd that kills is not our Gd, but an old, outmoded one." Or we can be true to our name, Israel, and struggle with this Gd who does things we think of as miracles and things we think of as horrors.
We need not have as our "holy cow" the politically correct view of Gd. It's OK to read Tanakh, and come across troubling and violent stories, and say "Holy Cow! I can't believe Gd would do this. How can I make sense of this?" I am not convinced it is equally ok to say "Holy Cow! I can't believe in a Gd who did do this, so this must not be the Gd I worship."
But yes, the Gd who put the words "Ma Tovu ohalekha Yaakov" in the mouth of Balaam is also the same Gd who drowned the Egyptians, smote Nadav & Avihu (and later the 250 followers of Korach) with heavenly fire, and gave the Israelites victory over their enemies. And the same Gd the people keep wondering about when considering the Shoah. It would just be too easy if Gd were explicable, never did troubling things, and always showed compassion. Gd is a Gd of wonders and miracles. And of chastisements and military victories (which inevitably means someone got killed.) Both what we see as good and as bad in Gd are both thoughts that could cause us to say "Holy Cow!" Whatever the reason we are so provoked, let's enjoy the provocation. For that is what keeps us from blind obedience and dogmatic observance. It's a constant challenge for some to pray to Gd because of how they perceive Gd's acts. The easy way out is to stop believing. The harder path, but the one I think has the most rewards, is to continue to pray to Gd who perplexes us so. Don't ignore the complexities, the troubling things. But, as Bart Simpson might say, "don't have a cow, man!"
The expression "holy cow" is said to derive from Hindu practice of reverence for cows and other living things. If we revere living things, then how much more so should we revere the Gd that created them?
Finally, a follow-up to last week's musing. Several of you wrote to remind me that in parashat Pinchas it says that Korach was swallowed up but that his sons were not. This is, indeed, the case, but it doesn't render the mystery any less mysterious. It may say this in Pinchas, but why not in Korach? No, the matter of what happened to Korach is still in doubt. And I still revel in the mystery. The later gloss in Pinchas (and I can only think of it as such) is just another testament to human proclivity for not liking loose ends!
©2000 by Adrian A. Durlester
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