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Comparative Religion 101: Red Cows (Parshat Parah – 3/22/19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Comparative Religion 101: Red Cows
If you have children who are 20 years old or younger, chances are you’re a Rick Riordan fan. My kids got me reading the Percy Jackson series, and since then we’ve experienced a lot of adventure, laughed a lot, and learned a lot about Greek mythology.
Recently I was taken aback when I discovered that red cows were sacred to Apollo. When Apollo was a child, he favored red cows and he gathered a herd of them. One day when he asleep, young Hermes, always the trickster, hid them away in a cave. In the end, Zeus forced Hermes to apologize and return the cows. Hermes crafted the first lyre for Apollo as a form of atonement.
Red cows appear again in Hercules’s 10th labor. As soon as Hercules returned from his 9th labor, Eurystheus gave him no rest, but sent him out immediately to procure the precious cattle of the giant Geryone. The latter dwelt on an island in the midst of the sea and possessed a herd of beautiful red cattle, which were guarded by this massive giant and a two-headed dog.
The reason I mention these animals is because this week’s special Torah reading is about a red heifer (Numbers 19:2): “Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow…” The Torah goes on to explain that only the ashes of this kind of cow can completely purify a person. If someone became impure because of contact with the dead, the way to become pure again would be to be sprinkled upon with a mixture of the ashes of a red cow and spring water.
No one understands why; this directive is considered the ultimate “chok”, a law which we’re not meant to fathom. Instead it’s intended as an opportunity to subsume our logic to our desire to serve God. Why does death bring impurity, and why do only the ashes of a red heifer alleviate the impurity?  Only God knows.
But what we gather from all the above is that there’s something special about a purely red cow. They’re rare, pure and precious, and this belief was shared across many cultures.
I had a similar awakening when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art and entered the Ancient Near East Exhibits. Among the amazing reliefs from the Assyrian Empire, I noticed the visage of the ruler wearing fringes on his garments. They looked like “tzitzit” to me. I asked my docent and she said that in ancient times, fringes on one’s garments was sign of respect and honor. The Torah obviously recognized the privilege of fringes and commanded all Jewish men to consider themselves to be so honored.
The more that one studies other religions, the more one finds elements in common. I experienced deja vu when I joined Pastor Olsen of Good Shepherd Church in an Advent service. All the readings were from our Bible, and I felt like I was in synagogue hearing the Haftorah from the last day of Passover.
When the mosques in New Zealand were recently attacked, a number of my friends decide to show solidarity and join the Friday afternoon service at the Islamic Center of Long Island. The mufti was a young man and appeared to be around my age when I started my career as a rabbi. I swore I was listening to an earlier version of myself, as he spoke his message of encouragement and faith. Although he quoted a passage from the Koran, it was almost verbatim to what we would find in the Talmud. The essentials of faith, trial and courage abound in all religions in amazingly similar phraseology.
We live in difficult times. Nationalism and bigotry have increased worldwide. Antisemitic acts in America have increased threefold in the past two years, but in truth, so has Islamophobia and other acts of racism and intolerance across the spectrum.
While we can’t burn a red cow and spread purity across the world, let it remind us of how much we all have in common culturally and religiously and therefore, how we need to see our situation in others’ and support each other.

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