Like a red heifer, our parents are a rare gift to be respected

Ki Tisa

Exodus 30:11-34:35

Numbers 19:1-22

Ezekiel 36:16-38

It’s a big Shabbat for bovines. This week we read of both the highest and lowest uses of cows by the Jewish people in the desert. The Torah reading recounts a spectacular failure on our part, the building and worship of a golden calf just weeks after experiencing the miracles of Exodus and the revelation at Sinai. The special maftir describes the use of a red heifer to regain ritual purity after contact with death. Is there a link between the two?

The rules related to the latter cow are rather arcane; indeed, it is the quintessential example of a mitzvah whose reasons are not readily apparent. This portion is read a few weeks before Passover, because in ancient times one who touched the dead utilized this ritual to reestablish connection with life before sacrificing at the Temple in Jerusalem for the holiday.

It isn’t the curious laws of the heifer that catch my attention, but rather its scarcity and value. The cow must be truly red-haired, without even two hairs of any other color. This makes them extremely rare, and according to Maimonides (Laws of Parah Adumah 3:4) only nine were ever identified.

A related story found in Tractate Kiddushin 31A: there was once a non-Jewish man named Dama Ben-Netinah who lived in Ashkelon. The rabbis wished to buy jewels from him for use in the High Priest’s breastplate, at the cost of 600,000 gold coins. He was happy to sell the jewels, but couldn’t get to them because the key to the box that held them was underneath Dama’s father’s pillow. His father was sleeping, and Dama did not want to wake him. As a reward, HaShem caused a red heifer to be born into his flock a year later, and he sold it to the Jews for a great deal more than the value of the gemstones.

What a strange story! I certainly appreciate how Dama honored his father, but why not just wait for his dad to wake up? If they waited two hours, they could have consummated the deal! Further, why tell us the exact price of 600,000? Who cares! And finally, why the odd reward of a red heifer? Had he not realized that this was valuable to the Israelites, it could just as easily have ended up as hamburger. Why not just cause him to win the lottery or have some other such financial success?

In his commentary on the mishnaic tractate Kiddushin, the Pnei Yehoshua notes that since Dama’s father would have wanted his son to get the money, it would have been permissible to wake him. Yet Dama didn’t do that, because he wanted to do better than what he had to do — he wanted to deeply honor his father.

It may well be that the other pieces of the story may be teaching us about that very honor of those older than us. The rabbis wanted the gems for the glorification of the High Priest, who is a very important person. However, Dama was demonstrating that parents and grandparents are themselves important people even if they are not famous and even if they sleep a lot (like his father) and are no longer capable of what they once were.

Thus, what Dama got was a heifer. He got something like a parent: rare, easily overlooked and not necessarily understood. (It takes quite a bit of work to understand the world of those who were always “above” us while we grew up and begin to see them as real people.)

This serves as a direct contrast to the Golden Calf. A calf is a baby cow, and its worship idolized youth and newness. Gone was the “old” deity, and the new god of this new generation called for spirited dancing and partying. Yet this has never been the Jewish way. We certainly value our youths, but with the goal of educating them with the wisdom of those who came before us. We respect and look up to our elders, remembering as we go about our busy lives that they are among the greatest treasures in our world.

Rabbi Judah Dardik is the spiritual leader at Orthodox Beth Jacob in Oakland. He can be reached at [email protected].