by Rabbi Debra Orenstein
Three and a half year olds are not necessarily known for their depth, but my son impresses me with a simple brand of profundity when it comes to the all- important theology of cow.
No, it’s not an Aramaic term with an unfortunate transliteration. It’s practically a family member – Cow. You’ve probably had a cow (or pig or blankey) in your family: the beloved One without whom there is no comfort and no sleep. For Emmett, that One is Iss (first name) Isskabibel (middle name) Cow (last name), known affectionately as Cow.
(Portrait is below.)
You may be wondering why Cow is pictured with a ruler. My husband, Craig, arranged that photo to supplement his pleading letters to toy manufacturers and e-bay sellers. Our cow was handed down to Emmett from multiple generations of prior owners. Craig searched the Internet for a second cow (we may have referred to it uncharitably as a “back up” cow) – to no avail. Cow is unique and irreplaceable. We have treated him (yes, a male cow!) as the precious rarity he is. He never leaves the house, except for overnight trips. He has a place of honor on a kitchen shelf where he observes our meals. Though he is often close by during play, we try not to leave him on the floor, where toddler messes and spills abound.
Maybe you’ve guessed the rest of the story. Cow started to fall apart. His stuffing was poking through. We didn’t dare wash him, which led to other problems. Multiple sewing jobs by dear friends Arlene Rosenblatt and Joan White (generally during women’s Torah class at my home) simply couldn’t hold Cow together.
So, I came up with a Cow preservation plan. Craig took Emmett to the fabric store, where they shopped for pajama fabric, and Cow’s friend Arlene sewed him some new pajamas to cover his threadbare ones. You can see the “before” and “after” below.
We discussed all this at length in advance, but I confess I was concerned. Cow was, well, a sacred cow. You don’t go changing an icon of history, comfort, and love. (Arlene understood this, and preserved whatever she could, going so far as to re-sew cow’s label on the outside of his new duds.) We called the covering “pajamas,” but, let’s face it, it was the equivalent of a full-body cast.
When we presented Cow’s make-over to Emmett, I held my breath. How would he react?
He laughed with delight. “Cow has new pajamas!” he exclaimed and then giggled again. He welcomed his old friend in new garb.
But, over time, with further staining and patching and the loss of a kerchief, cow became less and less like his old self. Eventually, radical surgeries were necessary. We covered the back of cow’s head with the same fabric as his pajamas, calling it a “cap.” We had to replace a horn, and the two no longer match in size, shape, or color. With each change, I was dubious, even worried. With each change, Emmett was accepting, even enamored.
Pirkei Avot teaches, “Don’t look in the jug, but rather at what is inside it.” And the ancient rabbis weren’t just talking about wine or oil or even hypo-allergenic stuffing. The eyes of love look through externals, not at them. Emmett sees the inner cow.
It occurred to me in the middle of the night last night (the reason for the timing of this missive), that Emmett treats the cow the way I hope we treat Torah. He has special places to keep it, as well as ritualized procedures for taking it out, studying it, communing with it. He keeps it close, as his constant companion. It gives him comfort and inspires creativity. It touches every part of his life. He knows the story of how it was handed down. He recounts its layers and stages. His relationship with it is not static: he invents worlds with it, and the beloved itself seems to grow and change. If it falls, he picks it up and kisses it. Yet its treasured outer form is nothing compared to its essence.
An outsider could dismiss both Cow and Torah as inanimate objects – just so much fake or real animal hide. A more sympathetic observer might say, with or without condescension, that these are transitional objects for Mommy and/or divine Parent. We invest them with meaning and use our imaginations to invent a relationship whose major feature is projection. We are really talking (only) to ourselves.
But Emmett has shown me first-hand that this is wrong. Or, rather, it’s factually correct but phenomenologically vapid; psychologically sophisticated and ontologically naïve.
The stories we tell and the witnessing we experience are real. The relationships we develop, develop us in turn.
All reality is “suspect,” anyway. Cow isn’t cow, and I am not I, and Torah isn’t Torah. One midrash says that Torah is black fire written on white fire. But that, too, is subject to interpretation. Not even the most vivid image or eloquent explanation or fabulous restoration can justify or explain inner cow, inner self, inner Torah. And, thank God, it doesn’t have to. Like Emmett, we simply know.