Strains of the “Ma Tovu” — “How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob; Thy dwellings, O Israel!” — filtered from the human synagogue to the nearby barn. The flock’s elder, a white ram, turned to the kids and lambs, bullocks, calves and colts sitting up front on the hay: “In this week’s parsha, Chukat, we learn how Moses disobeyed the Lord by hitting a rock instead of speaking to it so as to obtain water. For this disobedience, Moses was denied entry into the Promised Land.”
“Oooh.” “Ahhh.” “Ohhh.”
“And in parshat Balak,” continued the ram elder, “a sorcerer summoned to curse the Israelites ended up blessing them, thanks to the Lord’s intervention.”
Again, “Ooh,” “Ahhh,” “Ohhh.”
“Now that we’re done with the Torah lesson…”
“Wait!” said the congregation’s only red cow. “You’ve left out important details.”
The ram elder looked at her sternly, “We’ve been through this before. Some details are not for young ears.” The ram elder looked for support to the donkey, the horse, the bull, the sheep. A shrug here, a quizzical look there, a noncommittal swish of a tail, flap of an ear, tap of a hoof. “All right, then. Fine,” said the ram elder. “But if the children don’t understand….”
“They’ll understand,” said the red cow. “Just maybe not the way you want them to.”
The ram elder sighed, pawed the dirt floor for a moment, then told of the mysterious ceremony ordained in Chukat, one involving the sacrifice of a red heifer.
The red cow’s daughter, a near-bat-mitzvah heifer, looked up and said, “Mama, the Almighty ordered the Israelites to kill red heifers?”
“Now, children,” said the ram elder, “of course it’s painful to hear of our ancestors’ sacrifices. But — such an honor! The heifer’s ashes, when mixed with water, were used by humans to purify themselves before the Lord. The red cow lineage is a proud one.”
“Easy for you to say,” muttered the red cow.
“Need I remind you of Abraham and Isaac?” said the ram elder, stomping his hoof. “After Abraham passed the Lord’s test of obedience by preparing to sacrifice his only son, who was ultimately slain? A ram, that’s who! My family remembers the martyrdom with honor.”
“You want such honor, you’re welcome to it,” muttered the red cow. “Now tell them about Balak.”
“Fine.” The ram elder paced back and forth, then told how an angel appeared to the donkey whom Balak was riding. “Every time the donkey stepped out of the angel’s way, Balak beat him.”
“You see the suffering heaped upon us at every turn?” said the red cow.
The young began to whimper and whine.
“You see how your lack of discretion hurts our children?” said the ram elder. “I’ll not say another word.”
“Then I will,” said the red cow. “Fearing conquest by the approaching Israelites, Balaam the Moabite hired Balak to curse them. The Lord intervened, and Balak blessed the Israelites three times — after sacrificing seven bullocks and seven rams before each blessing.”
Gasps from the young.
“That’s 21 bullocks and 21 rams.”
Tears from the young. Adults whinnied softly, brayed, baa-ed in distress.
“All were murdered so the Israelites could receive a blessing,” finished the red cow. “Typical treatment of animals! Sanctioned in the Torah!”
“You take everything out of context!” said the ram elder. “Just look at all the laws designed to minimize our suffering, the humane laws of kashrut.”
“Ah yes, humane laws of how we’re to be butchered.”
“You’re impossible,” said the ram elder. “Impossible. Throughout history, the Lord has chosen us to serve mankind — always an honor. Always. With great responsibility comes some misfortune. The price of being chosen.”
“Giving milk or wool is one thing,” said the red cow. “But giving our lives and those of our children — that’s something else entirely.”
“You don’t understand the meaning of honor!” he said.
“You don’t understand the meaning of sacrifice,” she said. Turning her back on the ram elder, she walked over to the red heifer, led her past the other animals and out the barn door.
“Whether we understand the Lord’s mysterious ways or not,” cried the ram elder after them, “we must obey. Look what happened to Moses when he disobeyed. Just look!”
Daniel M. Jaffe, the editor of “With Signs and Wonders: An International Anthology of Jewish Fabulist Fiction,” lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.