The Red Cow: A Feminist Interpretation

Image: A red cow. (

The laws of ritual purity left the daughters of Israel a problematic legacy. No matter how body-positive we may strive to be, the Torah text in Leviticus 15 tells us that the natural function of menstruation regularly render women’s bodies tum’ah, ritually problematic.* Unfortunately, in the past readers have seized upon those commandments, jumping to the conclusion that the people who inhabit those bodies (women) are problematic and perhaps lesser or more dangerous than people with bodies that don’t bleed monthly. This has given rise to folklore and rules that continue to be extremely damaging to the rights of women.

The ritual of the Red Cow in Parashat Chukat may offer a counterweight to negative attitudes toward the menstruating body. The Red Cow is distinct from other sacrifices in important ways:

  • It is a female animal, rather than a male. It is specifically an adult cow. (Mishnah Parah 1.1).
  • It is sacrificed outside the camp, rather than before the Tent of Meeting.
  • A little of its blood is sprinkled toward (but not on) the Tent of Meeting, but most of the blood is left to be burned with the Cow.
  • Shni tola’at, “crimson stuff” is also burnt with the Cow. Shni tola’at means “scarlet produced by the scale insect kermes vermilio.” The ash of this fire, when combined with mayyim chayyim (“living water”) in Numbers 19:17, produces an antidote for corpse tum’ah.

The combination of these elements: a female animal, the complete separation from the usual sacrificial site, the emphasis on blood and the color red (Red Cow, fire, “crimson stuff,”) and the use of mayyim chayyim –— the same water required for mikvaot -— suggest that the ultimate
tum’ah of death may be balanced by a ritual that makes repeated references to the menstrual process!

May we, in studying this ancient antidote to ritual impurity, be led to value the messiness of our human bodies and affirm life wherever we find it!

*For a fuller explanation of tum’ah, which is often translated “impure” or “unclean” but which has nothing to do with cleanliness, see Clean and Unclean: A primer.


July 1: This Year, Part Two

Image: Half-drunk cup of coffee next to a list “2019 goals” (Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Today we begin the second half of 2019. Do you remember your New Year’s resolutions, whether you made them at Rosh Hashanah or at the secular New Year? What happened with them? What happened with you?

If your resolutions were life-changing and are now accomplished, mazal tov! I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

If you are like many of us, and those resolutions faded, I want to suggest to you that they are still useful – not as resolutions, but as information. In last week’s Torah portion, Shelach-Lecha, Moses sent spies into the Land of Israel to check it out. The spies came back with a 10-to-2 vote that the Land was too scary and the Israelites too weak. God was furious at the lack of faith, and declared that none of that generation would enter the Land. Instead, they would live out their lives in the wilderness, and their children would enter the Land.

We usually read that story as a failure: foolish Israelites, not having the faith to finish the job! We read God’s response as a punishment.

But was it really a punishment, or just an acknowledgment of reality? The former slaves were not equipped emotionally to make war in the Land. Instead, God cared for them in the wilderness, feeding them manna and renewing their clothing. Midrash tells us that all their needs were met while they lived in the desert. The damage from enslavement was too great: so God cared for them until a new generation came of age.

Resolutions that didn’t work out give us important information about ourselves. Often we adopt a resolution because there is something we don’t like about ourselves. Do we need to change that thing – or do we need to learn to accept ourselves as we are? Did we need someone to guide us as we made that change? Did we need to seek out better support? Did denial about something important keep us from from our resolution? Or did we take on a resolution because we wanted someone else to change? (Spoiler: that never works.)

Let’s use these days of summer to think about those old resolutions. If they succeeded, celebrate! And if not, let’s mine them for insight and opportunity.

I wish you a happy Half Year!

We Must Not Stop Caring

The news is full of pictures of the camps on the southern border of the United States. The photo above is from one such news item, from “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border” from I know that many of you are, like me, horrified at these reports.

I have been told that these camps existed during the Obama administration. If so, shame on us- this policy does not fit with my understanding of what America is supposed to be. We are slamming the door not only to immigrants like our own ancestors, but slamming doors on refugees from violence, people seeking asylum from terrible danger. I don’t care when it started; I want it to stop, and to be replaced by a fair and coherent immigration policy, something that both Republican and Democratic administrations have so far failed to produce.

I’ve written letters and made calls for months, and the news has only gotten worse. I’ve sent donations, and seen no progress. It is very, very easy to get weary, to decide that nothing will help, and to feel how tired I am of all this worry and activity. That weariness is a temptation to stop caring so much.

Ever since I first heard about the so-called detainment camps and the separation of children from their parents, I have protested it using the verse Deuteronomy 10:19: “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I’ve quoted those words so often, with so little result, that they have begun to seem meaningless.

Verses do that sometimes. They become rote, syllables that I repeat. At that point I step back and look at the larger context of the thing I’ve been quoting:

Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.

You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Listen to the violence in that passage! “Cut away the thickening about your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more.” This verse is sometimes translated literally as “circumcise your hearts” but I prefer this translation because it brings the metaphor closer – we are not talking about brit milah here (upon which we moderns can get sidetracked into debate) – we’re talking about heart surgery!

We who have been sending in our tax dollars to pay agents to orphan children by taking them from their parents —

We who have been leaving mothers and fathers weeping for their children —

We who have been treating strangers like animals, caging them and denying them basic needs like soap and toothbrushes —

We who have been doing this out of fear (“they will rape our women”) or out of greed (“they will get our jobs”) need to change our hearts today!

We who have acquiesced to it by blaming the bad stuff on the president and his people, by saying, “I didn’t do that” or “that’s not US!” need to change our hearts today!

O God, who knows the hearts of all, please help us cut away the calluses on our hearts, please help us to care. Help our caring to find a better way: a just and coherent immigration policy, with the support it needs to succeed.

The worse the news, the longer it goes on, the more urgent it is that we care and that we continue taking action. If you would like a list of possible actions you might take to care and to act, Slate Magazine recently posted an excellent list.

We must not stop caring!

Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment

Image: Stacks of coins that appear to be sprouting seedlings. (Pixabay)

On June 21 I had the pleasure of returning to Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV, the first congregation I served as a new rabbi, right out of school. Rabbi Sanford Akselrad was kind enough to invite me to preach.

I talked about a topic dear to me: the mitzvah of tzedakah. The title of the sermon was “Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment.” Since I generally preach from an outline rather than a full text, to keep my words and delivery fresh, I can’t reproduce the sermon here. However, I can give you the gist of it.

We usually talk about mitzvot as commandments or sacred duties: something we do. However, there is another angle from which too see mitzvot. Mitzvot are actions we take that also cause change within us.

Notice the blessings we say before performing a mitzvah:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who sanctifies us with mitzvot, and has commanded us to immerse ourselves in the words of Torah.

— Blessing before the Study of Torah

Before a mitzvah, when we say this blessing, we say that God makes us holy through our performance of the mitzvah. That is quite a claim.

So how does this work?

Take tzedakah, for instance: we normally think of it as our sacred duty to give money for justice or for the relief of suffering. We might think that tzedakah is all about the other person.

But it is also a powerful tool for human spiritual development. Let me explain with a story.

I have a little dog, Gabi. She does not particularly like potato chips, but if we have them, she manages to get one. She grabs a chip and runs a little distance off, hovering over the chip. If any other dog approaches, she growls. If I tell her to drop it, she will very grudgingly give it to me. As long as she has the chip she will not eat it, instead guarding it no matter what other fun thing might be going on.

In short, she makes herself miserable guarding that chip.

Look at the word “miserable.” What do the first five letters spell?

Tzedakah is the sacred duty to give money to a suffering human being, or to an agent who will help suffering beings. It is also a powerful antidote to miserliness, the misery that comes from hanging on too tightly to money.

When we give tzedakah, we remind ourselves that we actually have ENOUGH, enough that we can give away a bit. How much we give depends on our means. Jewish tradition teaches us not to give so much that we endanger ourselves. No, we are only commanded to give a little.

Giving that little bit will remind us that we have more power than we realize. One little tzedakah payment may be small, but when it combines with others, it transforms lives. It can save a person from starving to death. It can pay legal fees to free a prisoner. It can pay tuition so a person can learn and eventually support themselves.

That is POWER.

When we give tzedakah in its higher forms, when we give anonymously, we can fight back against our need for attention and approval. Maimonides teaches us that the mitzvah is fulfilled even if we give a tiny amount, grudgingly, and demand big thanks and a brass nameplate. But it is much more meritorious, he tells us, to give anonymously and to do so without public recognition. That kind of giving trains us away from narcissism. When we give quietly, we cultivate a true humility and become a better person.

So there it is: tzedakah may be the mitzvah of giving, but we still can receive much in return. As the blessing says, God gave us mitzvot to make us holy, to make us better people. In the case of tzedakah, it can take something that can be the source of tremendous stress and anxiety, and transform it into goodness in the world and in ourselves.

Shabbat shalom!

Double Vision: Beha’alotecha

Image: Eyeglasses, a blurred page. (By Free-Photos /Pixabay)

Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) is a study in pairs, a study in contrasts. God guides the people as a cloud by day, and as fire by night, yet within those two manifestations are another set of pairs. A cloud may guide, but it also obscures; fire may guide, but as the portion shows, it may also kill and terrorize. There are those that are ritually pure for Passover, and those who are ritually impure who need a way to observe the mitzvah.

Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild points out the contrast between the black skin of the Cushite woman, and the whitening of Miriam’s skin with tzra’at. Miriam, a woman is powerless to do anything about her punishment the skin disease, which contrasts with Aaron and Moses, who pray for Miriam’s healing. Indeed, there is also a contrast between silence and speech in this passage: Miriam sins with her speech, and the Cushite woman is silent in the text.

Perhaps more than anything, this portion illustrates the inclination of the human mind to divide things into binaries. Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, in a lecture on ethical decision-making at HUC in Los Angeles, taught me that human beings tend to frame our choices as “this” or “that,” but a good counselor will assist people in seeing as many alternatives as possible. In that way, we can escape the illusion of black-and-white, and see our world in its true colors. It is important to look beyond the yes/no or this-one/that-one binary in order to see the true spectrum of our options.

Chanukah in June!

Image: The cycle of the Jewish Year, depicted as a wheel. The spring holidays are at the top, the fall months are at the bottom. (source, provenance uncertain.)

The Jewish year is not just a big circle that goes around and around. It is full of echoes and connections across the year, and this week’s Torah portion is an excellent example of those connections.

The Torah reading for Parashat Naso in the book of Numbers contains readings that we will read again during Chanukah. Why? This portion contains the description of the consecration of the Mishkan [tabernacle.] Chanukah is the holiday when we celebrate the reconsecration of the Temple in Jerusalem, after the victory of the Maccabees.

We don’t have a full description of the reconsecration of the Temple, but it was almost certainly echoed the consecration ritual outlined in Numbers 7.

The Wikipedia article Naso (parsha) lays it all out so succinctly that I’m just going to quote it here:

Numbers 7:1–17 is the Torah reading for the first day; Numbers 7:18–29 is the Torah reading for the second day; Numbers 7:24–35 is the Torah reading for the third day; Numbers 7:30–41 is the Torah reading for the fourth day; Numbers 7:36–47 is the Torah reading for the fifth day; Numbers 7:42–47 is the second Torah reading for the sixth day of Hanukkah, which, because it falls on Rosh Chodesh, has Numbers 28:1–15 as its first reading; Numbers 7:48–59 is the Torah reading for the seventh day when it does not fall on Rosh Chodesh; and Numbers 7:48–53 is the second Torah reading for the seventh day when it does fall on Rosh Chodesh, in which case Numbers 28:1–15 is the first reading; and Numbers 7:54–8:4 is the Torah reading for the eighth day. When a day of Hanukkah falls on a Sabbath, however, the regular weekly Torah reading for that Sabbath is the first Torah reading for that day, and the following readings from Parashah Naso are the maftir Torah readings: Numbers 7:1–17 is the maftir Torah reading for the first day; Numbers 7:18–23 is the maftir Torah reading for the second day; Numbers 7:24–29 is the maftir Torah reading for the third day; Numbers 7:30–35 is the maftir Torah reading for the fourth day; Numbers 7:36–41 is the maftir Torah reading for the fifth day; Numbers 7:42–47 is the maftir Torah reading for the sixth day of Hanukkah, which, because it falls on Rosh Chodesh, has Numbers 28:9–15 as its sixth aliyahNumbers 7:48–53 is the maftir Torah reading for the seventh day; and Numbers 7:54–8:4 is the maftir Torah reading for the eighth day.

Naso (parsha) Wikipedia

A word about Jewish Wikipedia: Some writer/editors have put a lot of work into the articles about Judaism in Wikipedia. I find them to be generally reliable, but that’s because I double-check anything I find there. Wikipedia is not a bad place to look for sources about Jewish topics – but the real meat is in the footnotes and references. I don’t recommend quoting it without checking the source. Mistakes happen, typos happen, and I have seen errors there from time to time. Some of the writers include all movements of Judaism in their articles, and some have “attitude” about whichever movement isn’t theirs.

To bend a familiar saying a bit, Caveat lector! Let the reader beware! Or if you prefer it in Hebrew:

!קורא, תיזהר

Bamidbar: Connection v. Chaos

Image: The wilderness of Joshua Tree National Park (Photo: Ruth Adar)

This week’s Torah portion is Bamidbar, “In the wilderness.” The portion talks about census-taking and the organization of the Israelite camp in the wilderness of Sinai.

I love the contrast: the Israelites are surrounded by wilderness, and God directs them to organize themselves. It’s another version of the Creation story in Genesis. The earth is “unformed and void” (Genesis 1:1) and what does God do? God brings order out of the disorder. Similarly, at the beginning of the Book of Numbers God speaks to Moses in the wilderness, in a place of disorganization, and directs Moses to take a census and organize the Israelites.

First of all, this is a persistent vision in Torah, echoing the Creation story. Order is preferred to disorder. Life cannot be sustained and protected without some organization.

Second, “wilderness” is more than a place. The Israelites had been delivered from enslavement in Egypt – a narrow place, Mitzrayim – and now they were out in the wide world, free but disorganized. They will not survive the challenges of wilderness without organizing themselves. God provides them direction for doing that, ordering that the tribes each have a specific place to live, and assigning them specific tasks.

We Americans have a fantasy about the self-sufficient loner, or the self-sufficient family, living somewhere in the West, carving a living from the land. Bamidbar is a different vision: individuals as part of families, which in turn are related as tribes, and it is the cooperation of all that makes for survival in the midbar, the wild lands of Sinai. Alone they would be vulnerable to wild animals and raiders. In a tightly organized camp, they were safe, indeed, they were powerful.

In every life there are times when the midbar, the wilderness, is a powerful metaphor. The world feels hostile and frightening: how will we live? How will we survive challenges from people who want to steal our food, our belongings, maybe even our lives? What will we eat? How will we have enough money to live, and pay our taxes too? How will we keep our jobs, if it seems like all the jobs go to someone else? How will we be safe from crime, when it seems to be everywhere?

These worries can be overwhelming. It may be tempting to let the fear overtake us, to see everyone as an enemy, to go out into the wilderness and try to make it on our own, away from the scary people.

The truth is that survival comes in community, in relationships. The Israelites fought among themselves all the time (sometimes with terrible results) but God ordered them to stay together, to organize themselves, to learn how to get along. We are interconnected: we are social beings.

Let us resist the urge to hide in our houses, to hide behind our screens (TV screens, computer screens, tablets, smartphones) and instead, let us connect with the real people around us. Let’s get together and share food, share fears, share dreams. Let’s get together and work for a better world.

For make no mistake, we are living in times that feel like wilderness. It’s no place or time to be alone.