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Emor(Leviticus 21-24)

Cow Tears

This week's Torah portion says 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).

I remember visiting a milk farm in Israel in the Spring. It was calving season.

Calving season is the time when mommy cows have baby cows (calves to be precise). However, rather than let the new born calves suckle from their mother (as some may have learned in National Geographic), the farm hands were feeding the little calves milk from baby bottles - it was very cute.

But it did seem rather surreal to see a calf, like a human baby, suckle on a baby bottle. I mean what do the calves do in the wild if they can't find a bottle?

So we asked, "Why not let the calves suckle from their mothers?"

It would just seem to save an awful lot of time and effort. Those calves looked really heavy, and, I don't know, call me old fashioned, but isn't that the way it's supposed to be?

Anyway, this wasn't a dysfunctional farm. There was a real reason behind their method. 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.

However, the farm hands told us something interesting. They take the baby calves away from the mother at birth, so they don't let the calf suckle even once. Not as cute.

We asked the farm why they don't let the calves suckle for just a few days. They explained that they tried that once; however, when you take a calf away from its mother before it has weaned away naturally, one of them cries.

The mother.

Have you ever seen a mother cow cry? Apparently it goes on for days and the incessant moaning can keep you up all night long. Try this - next time you see a cow in a field, walk over to it and whisper in its ear: "You really are ugly, and a little overweight to boot!"

Cows just can't handle that kind of rejection, they just fall apart.

Seriously though, why does God want us to hear the mother cow cry before we offer the calf as a sacrifice?

The Talmud (Pesachim 112a) explains; 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, it makes us aware of a great principle of existence: the need to give is more meaningful than the desire to take.

Today we have replaced sacrifices (the calf) with prayers and therefore this principle is at the heart of prayer. For our prayers to be effective (as in sacrifices) you have to hear the tears and their message. Whose tears should we be hearing?


Just like the cow is crying because it needs to give, God is crying over how much He wants to give you.

God wants to give you, more than what you want to take.

That's how we should pray, realizing how much God really wants to give to us.

Even for things we don't get, at least not yet, it's not that God doesn't want to give - but maybe it's because it's not good for us. At least for now.

And so we keep praying.

* * *


Question 1: The milk farm took away the baby at birth so the mother would not cry. God tells us to keep it with its mother for at least 7 days, and then take it. Who is kinder, the milk farm or God?

Question 2: Why?

April 25, 2010

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Visitor Comments: 11

(10) Anonymous, May 19, 2016 1:47 PM

Great one and well said! Thanks for posting!

(9) david, May 11, 2012 4:51 AM

God is not a cow

Although your story is a beautiful mashal and very inspiring, God is not crying because he wants to give us more. God doesn't cry. He never did (look through the tanakh for instance). God doesn't need us. He is perfect the way He is. Shabbat Shalom!

(8) Matthew, July 7, 2011 3:28 AM

Is the 'need' to give more meaningful than the 'desire' to take?

Hello Rabbi Baars: I'm curious to know what you mean by "meaningful" when you say that the 'need to give' is more meaningful than the 'desire to take'. I think you want to say this because the mother cow wails (and the calf doesn't) after a forced weaning? I mean, maybe-- it's hard for me talk about 'meaning' in regards to an animal's life experience. 'Meaning' is something humans create (or more obviously, what God creates), but we don't usually think of animals as meaning-making beings. So the mother cries and the calf doesn't, so what? Even if this example is apt, you make too big a step by moving from it to the existential lesson that "the need to give is more meaningful than the desire to take" 1) First, why is one a 'need' and the other a 'desire'? Why not use the same word for both? Like a calf doesn't need to nurse (or at least receive milk)? 2) So what about the need to give vs. need to take? As a human in human relationships, mutuality is a sacred principle in my life. Your examples of relationships in this d'var are restricted to calf/cow and person/God. What about just a simple human child/mother example? Is the mother always having a more meaningful experience? How about non-hierarchical relationships-- with my life partner, should I always favor giving over taking, to have a more meaningful life? I have found much blessing and meaning in 'taking'-- although a more meaningful term for me would be 'receiving.' As a human, I find that receptivity and gratitude are virtuous habits to cultivate and they generally give a lot of meaning to the 'taking' portion of life. If I were to make a statement about meaningfulness re: 'giving' vs. 'taking,' I would aim for an even-handed classic: "You get what you give." Of course, this bit of wisdom has nothing to do with cows, so you'd have to use a different parsha in order to write such a d'var.

(7) Patricia, February 1, 2011 10:15 PM

God watches as his children fumble

Dairy farming is a business. If the cow fails to produce, she's slaughtered. If a cow is going to be sick for more than a couple of days, she's slaughtered. Male calves are either slaughtered within days of birth or within weeks. Females are kept to renew the herd. There's a balance sheet and anyone not producing above the break even line is dead... literally. But is this God's doing or man's? I say it is man's doing. We all know what is humane. If you've ever seen Bob calves being slaughtered or any calf being pulled away from the mom you have to know that this is not God's plan. It is business. God does not deal with business, he deals with what is correct. If we all agreed to pay more for milk and overhauled the system that keeps these cows slaves, then perhaps we will have grown a little bit closer to God. But so long as we turn a blind eye to the suffering of all farm animals (have you ever seen an egg laying farm... talk about suffering) in order to obtain cheep food, we will remain distant from our father and inhumane.

Anonymous, July 7, 2011 2:53 AM


Hi Patricia-- I find your words on the humane treatment of animals far more meaningful than Rabbi Baar's milkcow analogy for our relationship with God. We live in a very human world, so an ethics lesson regarding animal life and human commerce (justice-related issues) speaks to me far more as a modern person than a call to suckle at the teat of God. So to speak.

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