It’s easy to miss a most stunning idea smack in the middle of this week’s parsha (Torah portion).
I didn’t get it till I visited a dairy farm in Israel during calving season. (Calving season, for those among us not schooled in animal husbandry, is the time when cows give birth to their babies, calves.) At this farm, rather than let the newborn calves suckle from their mother, the farm hands were feeding the little calves from baby bottles. It was very cute, and surreal.
Call me old fashioned, I thought, but that isn’t the way this is supposed to be. And those calves they’re holding look really heavy.
To us city folk surprise, however, there was a method behind what we perceived as madness. Apparently cows, only produce as much milk as the calf suckles. As the calf matures and eventually weans away from its mother, the mother slowly produces less and less milk, eventually becoming useless as a milk cow. Thus the baby bottles.
Then the farm hands told us something shocking, and this is where our parsha comes in. They take the baby calves away from their mother immediately at birth, they said. We were a little taken aback by this. Why don’t they let the calves suckle for just a few days?
They explained that they tried that once, but when you take a calf away from its mother before it has weaned naturally, one of the animals cries — the mother. Apparently it goes on for days, and the incessant moaning can keep you up all night long. (Such is the rule of life: Don’t upset mom!)
So why does our parsha tell us that for an animal to be acceptable as a sacrifice, it had to be with its mother for at least the first seven days (Leviticus 22:27) after it was born before you can take it away?
To bring this young animal as a sacrifice, you have to take it away from its mother, and thereby make it cry. G-d wants us to hear these cries. Why?
The Talmud (Pesachim 112a) explains that the mother cow needs to give more than the calf wants to take. That’s why the mother cries and not the calf. The crying is a message making us aware of a great principle of existence: The need to give is more meaningful than the desire to take.
The calf, like all children, doesn’t really care who feeds it. It’s the parents that need the child, more than the child needs the parents.
Today we have replaced sacrifices with prayers, and therefore this principle is at the heart of prayer. When you are praying you have to realize that the G-d to whom you are speaking wants to give to you, even more than you want to take. Just like your mother.
By Rabbi Baars
Originally from London, Rabbi Stephen Baars resides in Rockville, Maryland, and serves as executive director of Aish Seminars. An educator and marriage counselor for the past 25 years, Rabbi Baars and his wife, Ruth, are blessed with seven children. Learn more about Rabbi Baars at www.getbliss.com and www.core9.live.