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Today’s Sacred Cow

Today we use the term “sacred cow” to refer to an idea that is beyond criticism or debate. It has its origins in the Hindu religion, in which cows were worshipped as a deity. In ancient Egypt, the sacred animal was not the cow but the sheep, and its slaughter was strictly forbidden.

In this week’s Torah portion, G-d commands the Jews in Egypt to slaughter a sheep as a sacrifice, in preparation for their redemption. Prior to this, they were told to keep the sheep in their homes, tied to the bedpost. If any Egyptian were to enter their homes and inquire about the strange goings-on, the Jews were to inform him that this sheep was being prepared as a sacrifice for the One true G-d.

The psychological effect of this act on the Egyptians is not hard to imagine, especially to people already reeling from a series of harsh plagues. Still, why was it necessary for the Jews to deliberately slight and provoke the Egyptians?


Our sages teach that the Jews in Egypt were in severe spiritual straits. They were steeped in idol worship no less than the Egyptians. Therefore, G-d had them perform this act to demonstrate their drastic disengagement from idol worship, through slaughtering the object of worship itself as an offering to the true G-d.

However, in order to demonstrate that it was not a hasty, one-time act performed in the heat of the moment, the Jews were told to bring the sheep into their homes several days beforehand. The presence of the sheep in their homes made a palpable statement: We, as Jews, fully understand what we are doing; we are abandoning the Egyptian idols and embracing worship of G-d Himself.

This process of demonstrating and embracing their faith was worth any price; even provoking the anger of the Egyptians. It was not done as a deliberate offense towards them, but was necessary for the Jews’ growth as an independent people.


The “sacred cow” of today is not cattle but logic and rationality. The scientific revolution of the 17th and 18th centuries has brought an almost magical transformation in our quality of life, and led us to believe that everything in nature has a plausible explanation. The place of spirituality – prayer, faith – in guiding daily events came to be seen as almost laughable.

Rational thought is indeed the power that sets human beings apart from animals, and gives us the ability to subdue natural forces and control them. However, scientific research and progress is useful only insofar as it helps humanity attain its goals, not to subvert them.

We are granted the gift of intellect in order to worship G-d with this power. Intellect is a tool of our faith, which guides us towards carrying out our purpose. To use intellect alone while ignoring or subduing all other instincts is like the machine rising up against its master. Intellect then works against us and allows people to perpetrate atrocities upon each other or upon nature itself.

This is the lesson we learn from this week’s Torah portion: to offer up the “sacred cow” as a sacrifice to G-d. Not to destroy it, not to annihilate it, but to use it for a divine purpose, to sanctify G-d’s name.


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