(Haaretz) — South Park’s latest season premiered on Comedy Central on Wednesday, and started with an epic prank pulled by Eric Cartman.
He announces he has found a ginger cow (spoiler alert!), though in fact he merely dyed its coat.
The news spreads like wildfire. Rabbis fly in from Israel to South Park to claim the cow, which they need to rebuild the Temple and induce the coming of the Messiah. But when they get there, they find that Christians and Muslims, to whom the red heifer is also holy, had arrived first. The three religions prepare to war over the cow, which they see as portending Armageddon.
Just as the world is about to come to an end in a conflagration of holy war, the sides agree to sacrifice the red heifer in Jerusalem together. Members of the three religions unite in the Holy City at an open-air concert by Van Halen in preparation for the cow’s sacrifice. We are told that world peace has arrived.
This all comes to an end and war resumes when the crowd is told that the red heifer appeared miraculously and wasn’t dyed “by a child with a small penis” as the prophecy had foretold.
So it is in South Park. But in actuality, the red heifer really is an element in the three religions; it is central to Jewish belief and, according to some traditions, is key to the coming of the end of days. However, the ritual of the red-colored bovine is probably rooted in misinterpretation.
First, sacrifice and burn the cow
We first hear of the red heifer in the Book of Numbers. “This is the ordinance of the law which the LORD hath commanded, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring thee a red heifer without spot, wherein is no blemish, and upon which never came yoke.” (19:2)
This unblemished bovine, the text continues, needs to be ritually slaughtered, burnt to ashes together with cedar wood, hyssop and scarlet wool. The ashes are then collected, mixed with pure water and voilà! You’ve got mei nida - purifying water.
The ancient Hebrews were profoundly preoccupied with spiritual purity, and the worst kind of uncleanliness was that incurred by handling the dead. A seven-day ritual was needed to purify oneself, which included twice being sprinkled with the purifying water.