The Red Heifer

© Durga Yael Bernhard

The Red Heifer is the image for June 2019 in my new calendar, THE JEWISH EYE 5779/2019 CALENDAR OF ART.  The story of the red heifer, from the portion of the Book of Numbers titled Chukat, is pictured here.  This parshah, or Torah portion, was read by Jews all over the world last week.  It always falls around summer solstice, a time that rejoices in the peak of life.  Perhaps this is no coincidence.

Chukat has a special place in my heart. Seven years ago I was in Israel for this parshah, and attended services at one of the few egalitarian synagogues in Jerusalem. The Torah reading was of the entire parshah, in a rapid, drone-like style, the reader’s white fringes swinging almost violently as he rocked in time to an internal rhythm. Etched into my memory is the sound of that stream of Hebrew words.  A female cantor also graced the service with a voice of pure gold as she carried the Torah scrolls, her face radiant with joy.  I closed my eyes and thought about the whole concept of purification; what it meant to our ancestors; how the ancients held purification as one of their most important rituals – and how today, those ancient rites have transformed into the quest for self-improvement and spiritual enlightenment.

The red heifer has taken up residence in my imagination as both a personal memory, and as a symbol of life and death. The ancient ritual of the red heifer was designed to keep us apart from the dead – for we are not to tread there too much. As ash dissolves in “living water”, so too, death dissolves in the stream of life itself. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: “The Red Heifer ritual is a powerful statement that the Holy is to be found in life, not death. . . . This made biblical Judaism highly distinctive. It contains no cult of worship of dead ancestors, or seeking to make contact with their spirits . . . . God and the sacred are to be found in life.'”

With that in mind, I sought to paint my holy cow robust and fleshy, in the prime of her animal life.  I draw sustenance from the animals in my life, and envisioned this priest doing the same, his head bent in reverence, inhaling the animal odor.  The dead body he attends is weightless, clarified, and peaceful. Outside the boundaries of the red heifer, life carries on at a safe distance, with music and feasting in the “goodly tents” of humanity. Everything is composed into a whole, like a Celtic knot, completing itself.

Life is good.

Please take a peek at The Jewish Eye.  Order here.  Calendars will be available by July 4th.

A good week to all!

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