This week we have the custom to read, in the synagogue, the verses describing the special concept of the Parah Aduma, or the red heifer. The procedure allows for the purification of those who have come in contact with extreme types of impurity. Despite being called a chok, a law for which there is no human logic, Our sages of blessed memory give us an idea as to why specifically a red heifer’s ashes are used as the main ingredient in the mixture.
The Midrash Tanchuma, quoted by Rashi connects the red heifer to the national sin of the golden calf. When Moshe did not return to the people on time according to their calculation, the people created and worshiped a golden calf. The Tanchuma tells us that the reason we use a cow is to atone for the sin of the calf. This can be compared to the son of a maidservant who soiled the king’s palace. They said, “Let his mother come and clean up the mess.” Similarly, let the cow come and atone for the calf.” The imagery is that by reminding us about the sin of the calf, we can then atone for it.
What is strange is that we see the opposite idea when we look at the greatest moment of repentance and atonement, the service on Yom Kippur. The kohen gadol, the high priest, specifically did not wear his golden vestments when approaching the holy of holies on the holiest day of the year. The Talmud tells us that we don’t want to bring imagery of the golden calf into this holy space when we are seeking repentance. How do we reconcile these two ideas? Are we supposed to remember our past sins, or are we supposed to forget them?
I have seen in my work in psychotherapy that we are often ambivalent about our past. In fact I find this so ubiquitous that I’ve even coined a name for it. I call it the “Boy Named Sue Complex”
A Boy Named Sue is a song written in the ’60s by the poet Shel Silverstein and famously performed by Johnny Cash for the first time at his concert in San Quentin prison. The song chronicles the life of man who is left with his mother at age 3 by his father. His father was so cruel that he gave him a girl’s name, Sue, with which the boy struggled his entire life, causing him to be angry and grow a very thick skin. So much so that he pledged that if it was the last thing he did, he would kill his father. Sue spends his life going from town to town looking for his father, until one day he bumps into his father at a bar, and attacks him. They struggle and fight fiercely until Sue draws his gun and points it at his father.
And he said, “Son, this world is rough
And if a man’s gonna make it, he’s gotta be tough
And I know I wouldn’t be there to help ya along
So I give ya that name and I said goodbye
I knew you’d have to get tough or die
And it’s the name that helped to make you strong”
But ya ought to thank me, before I die
For the gravel in ya guts and the spit in ya eye
Because he was the man who called him Sue.
Sue then tells us that…
he got all choked up and threw down his gun
Called him my Pa, and he called me his son
And I come away with a different point of view
And I think about him, now and then
Every time I try and every time I win
And if I ever have a son, I think I’m gonna name him
Bill or George! Anything but Sue! I still hate that name! Yeah
What happens to Sue? He is forced to face his past and its contribution to his present and future. He spends his whole life trying to erase the cause of his pain, but, then has to come to grips with the fact that the thing which has fueled his incredible tenacity is the very person he is looking to eradicate. He reconciles this conflict by acknowledging that he would not be able to get where he is without his past, but, he does not want that past to be part of his future.
I recently heard a quote by the author Wendell Berry, “The past is our definition. We may strive with good reason to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it. But we will escape it only by adding something better to it.”
The parah adumah is emblematic of the way we are to approach growth from our mistakes. We need to accept that we have made the mistake. If we hate ourselves, or even the mistake that we made, we end up hunting down that mistake within ourselves and become locked in a struggle with self which, like our hero Sue, distracts us from the very growth for which we strive.
Maybe this is why the Talmud tells us that when we repent from love of G-d the very mistakes become merit. Because acceptance of ourselves and our mistakes when appropriately executed allows us to see what is missing in our relationship with G-d.
On Yom Kippur, we are trying to present ourselves as the final product, after we have been purified, after we have accepted our own human failings, and used them to add something better to our past. When we approach G-d in the holiest of holies on the holiest day of the year it is not that we have rejected our past selves, its that we have become something better built on it. We have experienced redemption not despite our past but because of it.
Originally delivered as a drasha at Congregation Shaarei Torah – The Village Shul, in Cincinnati, Ohio.