‘And this is what Rabbi Ḥanina said: I have learned much from my teachers and even more from my friends, but from my students more than all of them’ (bTaanit 7a)
I know my way around Torah at least in part thanks to the students I have been privileged to help prepare for Bnei Mitzvah over the years. Many are now themselves parents of teenagers, while others have become outstanding teachers of Torah… Each time I re-read certain texts, I recall the young people with whom I first studied them, and some of their thought-provoking questions and comments.
I also owe a great deal to the specialist trainee paediatricians who spent time with me in my ‘child development’ clinics. ‘Polly’, now a well-established consultant in her own right, stands out in my memory for her remarkable knack at making connections with children and putting them at ease by chatting about their favourite books and characters. When we debriefed at the end of her placement and I asked if she had any comments or advice for our team, she said: “yes Nicola, you MUST read Harry Potter”.
That was over twenty years ago. Polly’s remark triggered an orgy of summer reading and opened an extra dimension of thinking for me. I still don’t ‘believe in’ witches and wizards or unicorns or werewolves any more than I had done previously, but I came to a renewed understanding of the importance of ‘suspension of disbelief’. J.K.Rowling, Philip Pullman, and Thomas the Tank Engine were just some of my companions and teachers on this journey – other people may prefer Tolkien or Shakespeare. The point is that if I can I allow myself to stop caring whether the story line is ‘true’ or ‘possible’, and just enter into the adventure, the characters can give me fresh insights into friendship, trauma, courage, families, and so many other facets of emotional reality – far more powerfully than any theoretical discussion might achieve.
In a strange way, it is the very impossibility of some of the fantasy creatures in good children’s literature, which can be so liberating. Like the ‘imaginary friend’, or the teddy bear or glove puppet who can ‘speak for’ a young child and help the attentive parent understand what is really bothering them, we need these creatures and banish them from our world at our peril.
This rambling reflection came about because of my annual encounter with the Red Cow at the beginning of Parashat Hukkat (Numbers 19: 1-10) – which later tells us of multiple deaths, including those of Miriam and Aaron. The Red Cow’s destiny was to be ritually slaughtered to produce a potion, which could then release people from the state of ‘impurity’ resulting from contact with a corpse.
The Red Cow had to be perfect, unblemished (Rashi says ‘even two black hairs would disqualify her’), previously unused. The Hebrew phrase for that last feature sounds almost like an incantation (‘lo alah aleihah ol’). Did such a creature really ever exist? She is in some respects the epitome of impossibility and paradox: for every single part of her must be reduced to ashes and removed far from the camp, and every person involved in that process becomes temporarily ‘impure’ – yet her product achieves the opposite.
I find my mind wondering to other impossibilities and extreme rarities. The unicorn of manifold legends in Christianity and other cultures, whose symbolic meaning has evolved over time and place – representing strength or timidity, diversity or martyrdom. The four-leafed clover, which is supposed in some way to bring ‘luck’ to the person finding it. The flying pigs invoked to express cynicism about someone else’s intentions or capacity to complete a task. The blue moon – which actually does exist, and depending on which definition you prefer, really may occur several times in your lifetime (including later this summer) – which has come to signify something so infrequent that it can almost be dismissed.
By verbal association with the Red Cow, other ‘Sacred Cows’ come to mind. Within Torah, there is the eglah arufah of Deuteronomy 21 – another ‘unused’ animal whose slaughter is part of a cathartic ritual to both acknowledge and disclaim responsibility for an unsolved murder. Better known perhaps are the real cows of the Hindu world, and the figure of speech meaning that something is inappropriately considered to be beyond criticism or question.
Rare phenomena do occur – albeit very infrequently. Perhaps there really were occasional Red Cows, which achieved near immortality through their own deaths and their posthumous exploitation in rituals of purification. Or perhaps the Red Cow is only a fantasy creature, like the unicorn or four-leaf clover, never to be found in reality, but helpful in letting us work through and express our feelings about difficult matters. Perhaps the whole point is that such perfection cannot be achieved, as indeed, we can never attain complete freedom from exposure to death and loss – and that is the wisdom and profound insight of our tradition and some of the strange rituals it describes.
Nicola Feuchtwang LBC Student Rabbi
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.