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Chukat 5775-2015

“Accepting the Inscrutable”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Chukat, we learn of the statute of the Red Cow, also known as the Red Heifer. The ashes of an unblemished, totally red heifer, that had never worked, were mixed with the holy waters, and the combined mixture was used to sprinkle on those Israelites who had become impure as a result of coming in contact with death. After being sprinkled on the third and seventh day, those who were impure immersed in a mikveh, and were rendered clean once again.

The law of the Red Heifer is known in Hebrew as a חוֹק, —  “Chok,” a statute that is beyond human understanding. The Torah clearly states as much in Numbers 19:2, זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השׁם לֵאמֹר, This is the decree of the Torah which G-d has commanded.

Rashi quoting the Midrash Tanchuma 7-8, explains that the law of the Red Heifer is regarded as the quintessential Chok –-decree–of the Torah. Because of the law’s seeming irrationality, Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, by saying, “What is the purpose of this commandment?”

By categorizing the law as a “Chok,” the Torah declares that the law of the Red Heifer is the decree of One Who gave the Torah, and, therefore, it is not for anyone to question. In other words, no rationale is given for this mitzvah, and because it is inscrutable, one may not ever question its validity.

Perhaps the greatest paradox of the Red Heifer is that its waters purify those who are contaminated, and contaminate those who are pure.

The Red Heifer and its irrationality is but a paradigm of much of life. Despite the significant efforts that we invest in trying to find the reason and the rationale behind all that we do and everything that happens, there are many things in life that are simply beyond human comprehension.

One of the major issues in Jewish life is the irrational nature of the anti-Semitism that is constantly directed toward the Jews. This anti-Semitism has led to totally irrational attacks on Jews throughout the ages. To underscore how pervasive anti-Semitism has been in Jewish history, there was even a special fast day declared many centuries ago, that is indirectly related to parashat Chukat.

The major commentator on the Code of Jewish Law, the Magen Avraham commenting on Orach Chaim 580, states that in Paris, in the Hebrew year 5004, corresponding to the date of June 17, 1244, a decree was issued by a commission of Catholic theologians, to burn cartloads of the Hebrew Talmud. This tragic burning of 24 wagonloads of the precious and irreplaceable books of the Talmud took place on the Friday prior to the reading of parashat Chukat.

According to tradition, the great sages of that time were deeply troubled by this calamity, and in a dream received a Heavenly reply that pronounced three Aramaic words, דָּא גְּזֵרַת אוֹרַיְתָא. These words are the Aramaic translation of the second verse of parashat Chukat, זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, which translates as, “This is a decree of the Torah.” This vision was taken to mean that it had already been predetermined that on the week prior to the reading of the Torah portion of Chukat, this tragedy would occur. Therefore, the sages decreed that the fast should not be observed on a particular day of the month, like other fasts, but instead every year, on the Friday prior to the reading of parashat Chukat.

Around the year 1240, an apostate Parisian Jew, named Nicholas Donin, convinced King Louis IX of France that he would be able to prove the truth of Christianity through the Talmud. If Donin would successfully prove his contention, all the Jews would have to convert to Christianity.

The Chief Rabbi, and head of the Yeshiva of Paris, Rabbeinu Yechiel who is mentioned many times in the Talmudic commentary known as Tosafot, was charged to head the team of four rabbis who would debate Donin. Unfortunately, the deck was stacked against Rabbeinu Yechiel and his three cohorts, since without the ability to speak openly they were unable to say anything critical about the church or Christianity, rendering the debate futile.

Through their skillful debating and their brilliant defense of the Talmud, Rabbeinu Yechiel and the other Jewish scholars were still able to convince the king that it was impossible to prove the efficacy of Christianity through the Talmud. The king, however, felt that the contents of the Talmud were insulting to Christianity, and in 1242, he recommended to the commission of Catholic theologians, that all existing copies of the Talmud be collected and destroyed. It must be underscored that this was about two hundred years before the printing press and that the volumes of Talmud that were destroyed were handwritten on parchments using quill pens. It is estimated that the 24 cartloads contained about 12,000 volumes of priceless Hebrew manuscripts.

Despite the valiant defense of the Talmud by Rabbeinu Yechiel, the king proceeded to confiscate all the money and property of the Jewish community and expel the Jews from France. This same King Louis IX was canonized by the church as a saint in 1297. The American city, Saint Louis is named after him, as is the Saint Louis Cardinals baseball team.

There is a poignant and controversial postscript to the story. It is well-known that certain elements of the Jewish community in the 12th and 13th centuries were not happy with the works of Maimonides and were especially displeased with his מוֹרֵה נְבוּכִים, the Guide to the Perplexed, which was based on Aristotelean philosophy and considered by some to contain heresy.

The great sage, Rabbeinu Yona of Gerondi and his followers declared war on the Guide and even reported the “heretical works” to the Christian authorities who publicly collected and burnt all the confiscated copies of the Guide to the Perplexed.

There are those who theorize, although it is impossible to prove, that the payback for burning Maimonides’ works was the confiscation and destruction of all the books of the Talmud from the Jewish community.

Hence, the fast that was declared on the Friday before parashat Chukat is not only because of the great destruction and expulsion that took place among French Jewry, but is also a reflection of the unnecessary enmity and the unwarranted jealousy that abounded in the Jewish community in those days. These attitudes led to the tragic destruction and expulsion.

It is reported that as a result of the burning of the Talmud, Rabbeinu Yonah acknowledged his error, renounced his former opposition to the works of Maimonides, and begged forgiveness for his actions.

The Al-mighty’s ways are often inscrutable. Try as we may to understand them, we often fail to see the Divine logic. It is important to know when to yield and simply accept the limits of the mortal mind and human understanding.

May you be blessed.