A Year in the Land: “My Cow! My Cow!”

After high school, many Orthodox Jewish teens spend time studying Judaism in Israel. This period is referred to as “shana ba’aaretz” in hebrew. (“A year in the land.”) I spent August 2001 — July 2003 studying there. These are my reflections.

“My cow, my cow! I’m afraid it will die!”

The man burst into the synagogue, overalls caked in mud, face leathered by the sun, the stench of the barn trailing him. The prayers were commencing, chants of Song of Solomon were being recited, but he was communicating on his own level. “My cow, my cow! I’m afraid it will die!” he shouted towards the bearded man standing at the head of the congregation.
The rabbi listened patiently and answered him–telling him where to go for help and with whom to speak.
One particular congregant was furious at the interruption. “Who dares disturb the rabbi in a moment of prayer… And about a cow, no less?”

“The cow” was a story oft told by Yeshivat Har Etzion founder Rabbi Yehuda Amital. And it was always followed up with the same lesson: The farmer wasn’t there to just ask about his cow.

The farmer was there for connection. He wanted to talk to this man, to speak with this leader, and have a relationship. In searching for words, the farmer found the ones most common in his vocabulary. He knew he wanted to say something to the rabbi, so he looked around and cried “my cow! my cow!”

If it helps, picture him as Brick Tamland. Replace lamps with cows, 70s suits with non-70s suits, and instead of Ron Burgundy, it’s Rav Burgundy:

None of these people are farmers or rabbis. But I think it makes my point.

The lessons were clear.

On an interpersonal level: Listen- Don’t just hear the words, listen to the person. What’s behind the sentence being said or the question being asked?

On a metaphysical level: Connection- In Amital’s world view even Jews distant to the tradition wanted connection with the rabbi, and all he represented.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital, head of Yeshivat Har Etzion. He thought through life’s most complicated things and came out with simple ideas on the other side. And he always went to the other side. He never pretended they were just simple.

But the lessons were also unclear. I would listen to this story, and think about how it related to others out there who wanted connection. But I didn’t hear the story. Because if I had, I would have realized that, indeed, I was the farmer.

That’s because my years studying in Israel not-at-all-by-happenstance coincided with the exact time in my life when I realized I didn’t actually want to be studying in Israel. And now I know that not wanting to be studying in Israel was representative of not wanting to live a life that I was on the path to leading. But then I knew… almost nothing at all. I had only the beginnings of thoughts and feelings–little feelies and thunks that would grow up into devastating realizations and utterances, but were now so early on in development that they were all but imperceptible through my untrained microscope.

So I’d look around the study hall and ask my rabbis questions about whatever I saw. “Should I be studying more philosophy?” “I am torn about whether or not I should wear a sport jacket for prayer.” “Where should I work over the summer? “I love lamp.” “My cow! My cow!” “Wah wah.”

Not one of those questions mattered. None of them were the ones I wanted to ask. But I didn’t know that. I knew what I could see in front of me. So I asked my rabbis about that. I never said “I don’t want to observe orthodox Judaism.”

I got close one time. After my other complete nonsense questions were treated seriously (enroll in a philosophy class; wear it; be a counselor for mentally disabled adults. I did. I didn’t. I didn’t.) I said to my rabbi:

I see myself now. And I see myself ten years from now. But I just don’t see myself getting from here to there.

He listened and replied:

I really don’t know what you mean.

He listened. But he didn’t hear.

I may not have known I actually was the farmer, but the rabbi had no idea he actually was the rabbi.

It’s the closest I got to asking the question I needed to ask. It’s the nearest I got to voicing the subterranean echo that reverberated through my body. I was on the brink of actually understanding what I was thinking and feeling. But I never got there.

In every telling of the cow story, the congregation was always reading Song of Solomon, a biblical love story that doesn’t mention cows at all, and only references animals metaphorically:

“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look! There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering through the lattice.”
(Song of Solomon 2:9)

Isn’t that exactly right?

The thing you want, the object of your desire… so often you don’t even know what it is. Is it a gazelle or a stag? Do I care about philosophy or is it something deeper?

And there, that thing I can’t find words for or vocalize... I can see it but I can’t touch it. There is latticework that blocks my vision. There is a partition that divides me from the unidentified figure that might be my future. There’s a wall and I’m the Brick. I’m the farmer. And I’m yelling “my cow!” when I’m actually after a whole different animal.

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