Parah Adumah – The Red Heifer, a dvar Torah for Or Shalom
Rabbi Hannah Dresner
Some of you may know that I am about to embark on my third trip to Cambodia this week.
Last year at this time I had just returned from a very northern province of Cambodia, near the Laos/Vietnam/Cambodia border, where I visited with an indigenous People who live on a bluff above the San River, a river that flows down from Vietnam. The San River is the river that is fictionally depicted in the movie Apocalypse Now.
I bring forward my trip on the river today because of the breathtaking sight of bright red/orange water buffalo bucking and playing in shallow waters all along the river.
I had flown 23 hours to Phnom Penh, traveled another 10 on paved and dirt roads, and then another several by motorized canoe to see something profoundly different from what I know, at what seemed to be the end of the earth.
When I arrived at shore of Kopheak I could hear shouting and chanting from above, and after some quick interactions with women washing clothing in the river, my guide told me that two of the magnificent parot adumot, the priceless red heifers, had just been sacrificed in the village in supplication for the healing of a sick villager, and I was invited to join the ritual.
As we climbed the headland and walked to the raised community building at the center of the village, an elder explained that a man in the village had been struck by lightening and killed a few months back. Ever since, the community chief’s daughter had been dreaming that she would be taken next. The nightmares had robbed her of her joy, had changed her walk in the world, and the suffering had to stop. If death did not take her, the dreams would.
Her family responded to these very real threats to the wellbeing of their child by offering up two of the huge, sleek, broad horned buffalo I’d seen cavorting along the banks as we’d traveled up river – a significant sacrifice. This was a preemptive substitute to the Powers that Be for the life of their unblemished child. And the community joined in support of her – butchering the meat and preparing it, making music. They intended to stay with her in the communal building until the animal was consumed. Even for some hundred people, there were a few days of feasting ahead.
The community house was a one roomed structure on stilts like all the other houses, but much larger, and just in front stood two golden-red buffalo heads mounted on stakes under a large weeping tree that was decorated with hanging “sukkah” decorations woven from palm fronds. These swung and danced from the branches, dangling around the heads. The kills were so fresh there weren’t even any flies.
Inside, the first stage of the feast was beginning as blood from the red buffalos, and rice for dipping, was being set out. It was explained to me that first they’d eat the blood, then raw meat, then, the next day, meat would be cooked and the ritual would end when the afflicted young teen ate the contents of the buffalo heads.
This was the real deal.
I didn’t witness the slaughter of the animals, and maybe I’d have a different story to tell if I had. But as it was, what I felt, the whole time I was with these incredible people, was not the shock of severed heads or outrage that these animals’ limbs had been cut off while the animals were alive, not a revulsion in seeing hundreds of people drinking blood, but rather, astonishment that a community would take notice of the vulnerability of one unsettled adolescent girl and take her anxiety so seriously as to sacrifice in an effort to alter her fate, so seriously as to suspend all daily pursuits and come into communal solidarity with her plight – sitting with her in vigil.
The “sick” girl looked to be about fifteen years old. She was wearing a yellow hoodie and sweat pants and was crouched at the top of the stairs. Upon entering, each person took a piece of cotton string and tied it to her outstretched wrist in solidarity, some tied money to her wrist, indicating that they, too, sacrificed on behalf of her healing, then they took a drink from a strong inebriating libation in a big earthen jug. One very old man brought her a tiny roasted pig which he laid at her feet.
She’d suffered a series of bad dreams and was afflicted with anxiety. What do we do when a teen has nightmares? Help them to relax? Try to talk them down from the place of their fear? Send them for talking therapy? Cognitive behavioral therapy to help tease out what’s “real”? These people took a direct approach: they bartered. They gave something precious because she was precious; they stood by her in day and night; they were willing to bargain with their gods stop her pain!
Psychologically, there’s healing power in being seen with such seriousness, one’s fear perceived as a real threat, not just a trick of the mind. There’s healing power in being companioned. There’s healing power in resting in the embrace of community, and this child was embraced.
As the women prepared food and the men made music, she sat and was greeted with bows and soothing words. I was astounded by the gravitas: how earnestly they took her distress and her vulnerability.
And here we are gathering on Shabbat Parah, when we read a special portion from the Torah about the laws of the Red Heifer. Already far removed from Temple and Tabernacle times, the Talmudic rabbis considered the law of the Red Heifer to be the most incomprehensible law in the Torah and were wont to say – this law is “just because” – just because God said so…
To a post sacrificial Judaism, to us as people who don’t believe in magic, and who care, differently, about the lives of animals, it’s impossible to understand the ancient cultic command to find a perfect red or auburn cow without blemish, a cow that had never labored under a yolk, but had cavorted free like the red buffalo in the village, and burn it utterly, totally, its ashes to be mixed with water and used as a means of purification – specifically purification of those who’d come in contact with the dead.
It is a ritual in the Torah that had no meaning to me, but being in Kopheak that day afforded me an opportunity to witness the power of acting so directly and viscerally to realign, to rebalance, to heal, make things right!
The ritual of the Red Heifer was death removing the taint of death – it’s bright aliveness given to restore members of the community who’d come too energetically close to death. It was a grass fed, truly free ranging being given completely and unselfishly to God, without utility to human beings in life or in death. The ashes of the joyful creature were mixed with free flowing water from a stream or spring and made into a potion used to symbolically reverse fortune. An essence of precious vitality washed away fear of death, altering conditions, so that a tainted person’s fate might become uninfected.
This is not a part of our paradigm, and yet, if only we could believe in such things, or the power of sacrifice embraced at Kopheak. In it’s scale and drama and primal physicality, the sacrifice amplifies our own desire to have agency in protecting our beloveds. What wouldn’t the Or Shalom community have sacrificed to save precious members from suffering cancers and other terrible illnesses?
Of course, I don’t advocate our return to a cultic life. But there are ways that we can stand by members of our community who withstand pain, whether physical or psychic, giving deeply of ourselves and of what we have so that our embrace is one into which our own members can rest when needed. Since my arrival I have heard so man testimonies of appreciation offered by individuals supported in Or Shalom’s wrap-around of gemilut chesed.
In coming weeks, you will hear more about a new gemilut chesed initiative being hatched by Pat Gill and Hariett Lemer and Bat Ami Segal and Ann Daskel. They are working to create a structure that makes asking for help easier, coordination of support stronger, and performance of the mitzvot associated with accompanying the sick identifiable and easy to take on.
We won’t drink blood together or tie money to one another’s wrists in demonstration of affinity, but we will witness one another, companion one another, make sacrifices for one another, and do what we humanly can to wash away fear.
That is my blessing for our community.
For myself, as I head out to a far-away place that scares me a little, I want to remember the value of celebrating with other peoples. I want to embrace the efficacy of indigenous worship and indigenous modes of healing. The sacrifice I did not witness pushes many reactive buttons, and these remote villagers, believing in animal demons, are climbing the same spiritual mountain I am, with dignity and beauty and even with similarities to the practices of my ancient ancestors.
Above all, they demonstrated a communal love I wish for my young daughters and, indeed, wish for myself.