Shabbat Parah Adumah—Sabbath of the Red Heifer

Shabbat Parah Adumah—Sabbath of the Red Heifer

Parshat Shemini

March 30, 2019—23 Adar II, 5779

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark

            I am the Red Heifer. Without my sacrifice, there can be no Pesach, no Seder, no Prayer for Dew (Tal); not even those matzo balls in chicken soup of which Jews (and gentiles) are so fond. The High Priest, Aaron, will sacrifice me, burn me to total and complete ashes, mix these with holy water, and flick the ashen water onto the assembled multitude of Israelites. Ironically, though my ashes are meant to purify all of Israel and allow them to indulge in the Korban Pesach—Paschal Offering—in a pure state, God has decreed in our Torah (for it is my Torah, too, though the best I can do is “moo” it, not chant) that all implements and tools used in my sacrifice shall be deemed tamay, impure. It is a curiosity, a hoke, meant not to be understood, only performed.

            After all, slaughtering a little cow that never hurt anyone is odd, but it pleases the Most High that this should occur. I understand (for I am a prophetic cow) that only I and six other heifers were ever sacrificed throughout Jewish tradition (The Torah is not history). Some addlebrained religious zealots have prepared yet another red heifer to hasten Messiah’s Coming, but I take it with a grain of hay. One does not tell God what to do; He has been working His ways forever and aye, and we should leave things like Messiah alone. One brings Messiah by doing mitzvote and good deeds; one does not focus on archaic symbols and rituals.

            And so, you may ask: why do I give up my life so readily? First of all, I am a cow; cows cannot resist the Power of Man. Secondly, I understand that my sacrifice is meant to atone for yet another cow—the Golden Calf, whose worship continues today, in places both low and high. Well and good. I see the High Priest coming, shining blade (not burnished) in hand. Understand, Mortal, that I have no illusions, unlike many of you. When my time comes, I will go joyfully. Whatever Afterlife exists for us cows, it will be real, without deception. God be praised: there, even a Red Heifer may rejoice.


Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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