Rashi wrote many commentaries that connected the Golden Calf to the Red Heifer. He wrote commentaries on verses 19:10-12 that make connections between the two. Both are bovines turned to dust. The dust was used to purify in both cases, and that in both cases, the dust is mixed in water. Additionally, Rashi points out that both the Golden Calf  and the Red Heifer render anyone involved in making them impure.

There is one similarity that Rashi points out which seems problematic:

Just as the crime of the Calf was remembered (Hebrew: shamur”, literally “kept”) for all generations as a justification for Divine punishment, and there is no sin remembered (Hebrew: “pekudah”) like that of the Calf, as it is written “On the day that I visit, I shall visit (Hebrew: “pakadeti”) their sin upon them” (Ex 32:34)…

This commentary was written on the word “safekeeping” in the verse 19:9:

And a man in a pure state shall gather the ashes of the heifer, and lay them outside the camp in a pure place, and it shall be there for safekeeping….

The works “safekeeping (mishmeret)” and “visit (pakad)” have very different meanings in English, but in Hebrew, the word “pakad” can be used to mean both. A “pikadon” is an object placed in another’s care for safekeeping. That is not, however, the sense in which the word “pakad” is used in the verse in Exodus regarding the Golden Calf. There, it is used to mean that the sin of the Calf will never be forgotten, and that it is the paradigmatic sin that all other sins that incur Divine punishment will be compared to.

The “safekeeping” of the ashes of the Red Heifer and the “remembrance” of the sin of the Golden Calf may be seen as similar if we think of God’s memory of the sin as being “kept” in the same sense that the ashes are kept.

There is another thing about this conjoining of the Red Heifer and the Golden Calf which may be a source of dissonance to the modern reader. While the Torah looks at the guilt of the Calf as something to be “purified” from, in the same way that contact with the dead is something that the ashes of the Heifer is something to be purified from, the two “contaminations” are fundamentally different. The making and the worship of the Golden Calf was a sinful and willful act. Contact with the dead is something that carries no moral implications. There is nothing sinful in it, and it can be accidental, and even inevitable.

What Rashi refers to here is the fact that guilt is a kind of taint; a thing to be “cleansed” of. Sin can be “washed away.” The kind of sin that can be “washed away,” however, is not the kind that involves a harmful action against another human being. That can only be atoned for through reparations and apology. Acts that we take against our spirituality, however, require a spiritual remedy. This is the area that involves “impurity,” or “tum’ah.” Whether it is an act that is destructive to our spiritual well-being, such as idolatry, or contact with something spiritually unwholesome, such as a dead body, the Torah prescribes an act of spiritual cleansing, such as being doused with the waters of the Red Heifer or of the Golden Calf.

Shabbat Shalom!

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