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Parshot Festivals

The mystery of the red cow

  • ParshaRabbiSamThurgood
The information age has given us an unprecedented ability to understand ourselves, one another, and the world around us. I’m a person with eclectic interests, and have, in my spare time, learned about film criticism, history, engineering, battery design, photography, psychology, design, philosophy, sociology, and lockpicking (I know, right?) All of this has been done without stepping foot in a lecture, but by watching experts on YouTube, and taking online courses.
by Rabbi Sam Thurgood, Beit Midrash Morasha | Jul 11, 2019

While I may be more of an information-junkie than most, this is a worldwide phenomenon. Many doctors and lawyers today are familiar with patients and clients approaching them with some self-taught knowledge about their condition or case. This is why the mitzva (commandment) that characterises our parsha is one of the most frustrating, and also one of the most important.

The parah adumah (red cow) is, as you may know, the archetype of a mitzva that we don’t understand. We can explain Shabbat (declaring, through our abstention from creative activity, that Hashem created the world in six days, and rested on the seventh), mezuzah (the words of the Sh’ma upon the doorpost of almost every room, to remind us of our duties and responsibilities as we pass through), and the laws against murder and theft. But, we can’t explain why water infused with the ashes of the red cow brings purity to one who has had contact with the deceased, but impurity to another who is carrying it simply to transport it.

This is far from the only such inexplicable mitzva. Why aren’t we allowed to eat pork? Why are men not allowed to shave with a blade? Why can’t our clothes contain a mixture of wool and linen? For all of these mitzvot and more, our rabbis have given explanations, but these have all been (in the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel) like a commentary on a work of art – we can do our best to say what we see and feel upon beholding it, but we can’t capture the artwork in our words. The mitzva stands beyond, separate.

In a way, my endeavour to learn more and more is an attempt to comprehend and ultimately contain the outside world. “Scientia potentia est!” (knowledge is power), declared Sir Frances Bacon, and through our knowledge, we manifest and actualise our power. But, then, we are confronted with a red cow. That which stands beyond knowledge. We realise that the Torah is too great to be contained within our minds, that it stands apart, beyond, above.

The red cow is to our minds what Shabbat is to our creative energy – the phenomenon that shows us the scope of reality beyond ourselves, that Hashem is greater and more mysterious than we could have hoped for. That we ourselves are not simply information to be grasped, but a part of this eternal mystery, and the part that can wonder in delight at the mystery itself.

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