This week is Shabbat Parah when we read the story of the Red Heifer, that strange ritual of purification. But we also read about another cow, the Golden Calf.
Two cows on the same Shabbat!
The Red Heifer represents our ability to purify ourselves in the face of death and defilement. The Golden Calf represented our complete abandonment of God a mere forty days after the revelation at Mt. Sinai. We are imperfect, we are only human.
Despite all our imperfections Moses manages to secure our future. We are a “stiff necked” people and this is recognised by God.
Say to the children of Israel: 'You are a stiff-necked people; if I go up into your midst for one moment, I will destroy you
Moses responds saying:
Forgive them because they are a stiff-necked people
And God responds by saying:
I will form a covenant; in the presence of all your people, I will make distinctions such as have not been created upon all the earth and among all the nations
What Moses is trying to say is that the time will come when that stubbornness will be not just a tragic failing but a defiant loyalty. If you have a stiff neck you do not bow down to other cultures. When we recite the Aleinu prayer we acknowledge that we only bow down to God.
Many nations worship God from afar, but Jews consider themselves His close relatives.
The prophets argue, King David hears and in the Talmud God is heard listening to the Sages. Our relationship is more that of a parent and child. It is a mixture of respectful behaviour as we follow the mitzvot but also to question and challenge.
Unlike Moses we cannot see God’s face; but we are able to encounter God every day in our homes, in our communities and here on earth.