KI SISA (Exodus, 30:11-34:35) /PARAH (Numbers, 19:1-22) — “Abs of Steel/Calves of Gold”

This week, it seems, is the “Week of the Cows.” First, in our regular weekly Torah Portion, we will read about Israel’s sin of worshipping the Golden Calf.  When Moses didn’t come down from Mt. Sinai as expected, the Israelites panicked and promptly replaced him with this idol.  Next, we will read, from a second Torah scroll, the section of “Parah Adumah,” the Red Heifer. 

The Red Heifer is a Mitzvah that is, in all due respect, totally illogical. (At least it’s illogical to humans. The great King Solomon himself couldn’t figure out the deep meaning that G-d had invested into this apparently contradictory Mitzvah.) 

The ashes of the Red Heifer were used for purification.  If a person had come in contact with a corpse, either by direct contact (e.g., a doctor) or having entered a cemetery, he would be considered “Tamei,” ritually defiled.  Such a person would not be permitted to enter the Temple or eat “sacred foods,” such as the Korban Pesach, the Passover Offering of roasted lamb at the Seder.  Part of the purification process involved being sprinkled with a solution that included, among other things, the ashes of a totally red heifer. 

(The reason for this additional Torah Reading is that with Passover right around the corner, we are busy preparing our homes for the coming Yom Tov.  We need to remember the Mitzvah of the Red Heifer because it is supposed to be part and parcel of our Passover preparations.  Every year at the Seder, we conclude our meal with a “dessert” of Matzah called Afikoman. The Afikoman serves as an interim replacement for the Passover Offering that may only be offered when the Temple is standing.  When the Temple is rebuilt, hopefully soon, we will have to participate in the Red Heifer purification ceremony.  That way, we will be able to replace our Matzah Afikoman with a savory desert of roasted lamb, as required by the Torah.)


Is there a link between the two colored cows in this week’s Torah Readings?  Can we find a connection between the calf of gold and his crimson “mother?” 

The Talmud says that the Mitzvah of the Red Heifer is to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf.  The Midrash Tanchumah says, “If a maid’s son messes up the king’s palace, let the mother come and clean up after her son.” Since a calf was involved in this sin of idol worship, his “mother” should clean up the mess by bringing forgiveness for this sin. 

Very nice symbolism.  But does it fit? Is there any logical connection between the sin of bowing down to a calf-shaped molten image, and being sprinkled with a mix containing the ashes of a cow? 

Yes and no. 

The Red Heifer is the quintessential “Chok,” or divine edict, with no understandable explanation.  The Talmud tells us that the Red Heifer “purifies the defiled, and defiles the pure.”    The person who burns the heifer, the person who collects the ashes, the person who adds the other ingredients, all of them become “contaminated” through the ceremony that purifies the “client.” The same mystical blend that allows one who has come in contact with the dead to enter the Temple causes those involved in preparing the concoction to be temporarily barred from entering the Temple! 

There are many Mitzvahs that make a lot of sense, such as the prohibitions against murder and adultery. There are other commandments that G-d gave as a royal decree.  We do what the King tells us to do simply because He is our King. An atheist can understand the immorality of stealing and the importance of paying to repair things that you damage.  A secular humanist will also give to charity and might even circumcise his son if he believes that it’s a healthy thing to do.  The real test of one’s faith comes when one is presented with a requirement that goes beyond our level of understanding. When we observe the Sabbath and make sure our suits don’t contain mixtures of linen and wool, we are showing that we follow the Torah because of our faith in G-d, not because we decided that we happen to agree with the logic. 

Let’s examine the sin of the Golden Calf.  Now THERE’S something that REALLY makes no sense! 

Here you have the Nation of Israel, a group of people who have seen the greatest miracles in the history of the world.  They saw the Ten Plagues in Egypt. They walked on dry land through the Red Sea and witnessed it closing on the Egyptians.  They stood at the base of Mt. Sinai and observed lightning and saw (yes, SAW!) thunder.   They heard the voice of G-d commanding them, “You will have no other gods before Me!”   And the next thing you know, 40 days later, they’re dancing around in front of a bovine statue, a gilded trinket, and singing, “These are your gods, Israel, who took you out of Egypt!”  DOES THIS MAKE ANY SENSE AT ALL?! 

This, perhaps, is the connection between the calf and his mom.  Maybe the cow is there to teach us a bit of horse sense!  Sometimes we’re too smart for our own good.  We think we have all the answers:  This Mitzvah makes sense so we do it.  This custom is antiquated and old-fashioned, so we don’t.  

Worshipping the Golden Calf was a totally irrational thing to do. Perhaps the best way to atone for not thinking reasonably is by showing G-d that we have learned to trust HIS logic instead of our own.  G-d is telling us: “Don’t be so smart!  If you were as wise as you think you are, you never would have prayed to a nugget of fool’s gold! Get your act together!  Purify yourself with the ashes of a cow.  I know you don’t understand it, but you’ve already proved your own “wisdom” at her golden son’s party!  Trust me.  I know what I am doing. I am, after all, your Creator.”


Another thought about the Golden Calf: 

The people weren’t thinking straight. They actually THOUGHT that they were doing the right thing by praying to the calf.  It made sense because they didn’t think it through.  Their priorities got mixed up and they didn’t think about the full ramifications of their actions. 

How many of us have our own Golden Calves that we dance around?  Some of us throw away precious hours in front of that high priest of idol worship — the almighty T.V! Others of us throw ourselves into our work at the expense of everything else. (Did you ever hear of someone on his deathbed regretting that he hadn’t spent more time in the office instead of with his children?!) 

How about exercise? A very important endeavor, without a doubt.  Even a Mitzvah.  But have you ever met runners who LIVE to surpass last week’s top speed, weight lifters who MUST build rock-solid “abs” and bulging biceps? 

Are we really dedicating ourselves to life’s priorities? Are we thinking through to the consequences of our actions?  If, not, we may be suffering from symptoms of spiritual “mad cow disease” and intellectual “foot and mouth.”

Have a great Shabbos.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz


From the Archives 

“Fool’s Gold” (2010)

“The statistics linking smoking to lung cancer, emphysema, heart disease, and burn marks on furniture are inconclusive.”

“Seat belts are too restrictive. Many people have died because they couldn’t get out of their cars quickly enough.”

“I’m only going to taste one tiny sliver of this Double-Decadent Chocolate Cream Pie…”

“Honest, Mom, It’s only a date… ”

“Marijuana is NOT addictive! It’s not as if it will lead to taking something dangerous …”

“I don’t need to hire a Mohel. I can do it myself. I’ve watched it being done dozens of times…”

Do we really believe the lies we tell ourselves? …

Read more.


 “Who WAS That Masked Man?” (2009)

 It was to be the very first Yom Kippur.   Moses was returning from the summit of Mount Sinai. He was carrying in his hands two blocks of sapphire.

 This was his second such journey. Last time Moses came down the mountain carrying stone blocks he was dismayed by what he saw… He discovered his People dancing around a Golden Calf…Moses smashed the Tablets; his People weren’t ready for them.

Now Moses was bringing a new set of Tablets. G-d had accepted Moses’ prayers for forgiveness for His People. Every year we commemorate that day as Yom Kippur, a day when G-d is prepared to forgive his People for their shortcomings.

 Yes, Moses was back. He had returned to his nation… But something was different… it was… his face!…

 Read more.


“Hot Cash” (2008)

 The Children of Israel sinned.  They sinned egregiously.  They melted their gold and formed it into a statue of a calf.  They danced around that statue, referring to it as their god who had taken them out of Egypt.  This was a terrible sin.  G-d almost wiped out the entire nation as a punishment.

 They needed to atone for their sin…

 Simply put, the Israelites sinned against G-d by melting their gold into an idol.  They atoned for this sin by melting their silver into a Temple for G-d.

 …This is what they must give …a half-shekel… 

 There were certain commandments that Moses didn’t fully understand.  The Half Shekel was one of them.  The Torah says …This is what they must give …a half shekel… The Talmud says that G-d showed Moses a fiery half-shekel coin, and said, “It should be like this.”

Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin asked why Moses was so confused.  Why did he need to see what a half-shekel looked like?  Had he never seen such a coin before?  And why did G-d show him a half-shekel of fire?  Wouldn’t a regular silver coin have sufficed to clarify the requirement?

 … Moses knew quite well what a silver coin looked like; that wasn’t his question… 

Read more.


“‘Los ANGELES’ (‘City of ANGELS’) or San Francisco?” (2004)

 .. It is very important to defer to the protocols of the community you visit. Even angels do it for humans, and humans do it for the angels:

 “… He (Abraham) stood by them (three angels who appeared to be men) under the tree, and they ate.” (Genesis, 18:8)

 “… He (Moses) was there (Mt. Sinai/Heaven) with G-d for forty days and forty nights. He ate no bread and drank no water.” (Exodus, 34:28)

 Based upon the above two verses, the Talmud (Bava Metzia, 86b) advises us to respect local custom. Humans require food for sustenance. Angels, who are spiritual beings, do not. Yet, the angels, out of respect for Abraham, honored him by accepting his offer of food, while Moses had to adhere to the angelic way of life by engaging in a forty-day fast…

 We just read that one should follow the customs that are acceptable in the locale in which he finds himself. Does this mean that we should have one set of values in Jerusalem, Monsey and Boro Park, and a different set of values in San Francisco, New Paltz, and Massachusetts?!…

Read more.


“How Do I Count Thee? …” (2003)

 … How did we get caught up in worshiping the Golden Calf? How could we have strayed so far from the Second Commandment …

Read more.


“Cut Two Tablets and Call Me in the Morning” (2002)

 G-d was angry… Moses said to the people, “… I will go back up to G-d and try to gain forgiveness for your crime.” …

Sounds pretty easy. Too easy. Is that all it takes to be forgiven for sinning? Did you worship idols and rebel against G-d today? Maybe a little murder and adultery while you’re at it? No Problem! Take two Tablets, say thirteen attributes and a few “Hail Moses-es” and call me in the morning! You’re all set! All is forgiven!… Is that what Judaism is all about?! Do whatever you want, and then say a few verses and then everything is okay?! Sounds like another religion!…

Read more.


“Abs of Steel/Calves of Gold” (2001)

This week, it seems, is the “Week of the Cows.” …The Red Heifer is a Mitzvah that is, in all due respect, totally illogical…

Is there a link between the two colored cows in this week’s Torah Readings? Can we find a connection between the calf of gold and his crimson “mother?” … Is there any logical connection between the sin of bowing down to a calf-shaped molten image, and being sprinkled with a mix containing the ashes of a cow? …

 Read more.


 This is the weekly message at   Copyright © 2000-2015 by Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz.  May be reprinted. Please include copyright information.


Rabbi Yerachmiel Seplowitz is a Mohel (  and chaplain in Monsey, New York. For information about scheduling a Bris or a lecture, or just to say hello, call (800) 83MOHEL.


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Published in: on March 15, 2001 at 6:54 am  Leave a Comment  

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