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Chukat 5774-2014

“The Inscrutable Statutes”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Chukat opens with the well-known and deeply inscrutable law of the Red Heifer (cow).

In Numbers 19:2, G-d tells Moses and Aaron: זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה השם לֵאמֹר:  דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין בָּהּ מוּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָלָה עָלֶיהָ עֹל, This is the statute of the Torah, which the L-rd has commanded, saying: speak to the Children of Israel, and they shall take to you a perfectly red Heifer, which has no blemish, upon which a yoke has not come.

The Torah further explains that the Red Heifer shall be given to Elazar, the Priest, who will take it outside the camp, where it will be slaughtered. After performing the blood ritual in front of the Tent of Meeting seven times, the heifer is burned. Its hide, its flesh and its blood with its waste, shall also be burned. The priest is to take a piece of cedar wood, hyssop, and a crimson piece of wool, and throw them in as the heifer is burned.

The Torah states that the purpose of this ritual is to purify those people who have been contaminated by coming into contact with the dead. Those who are contaminated must be purified on the third day and on the seventh day, by being sprinkled with the waters of the ashes of the Red Heifer. On the night of the eighth, they are to immerse in a Mikveh, to finalize the cleansing.

The paradox of the Red Heifer is that those who are impure are purified by its waters, while those who are pure who come in contact with it are rendered impure. Even the priests and others who perform the Red Heifer rituals become impure. That is why the Torah portion opens with the words, זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה , This is the statute of the Torah. A “Chukah,” is a type of religious law that has no apparent rhyme, reason or rationale to it. It is, indeed, inscrutable.

Rashi explains in his opening comment on the parasha, that the “Satan” and the nations of the world taunt the People of Israel by pointing out the irrationality of the law of the Red Heifer, saying: “What is this commandment? And what reason is there to it?” Therefore, scripture boldly asserts that the law of the Red Heifer is a “statute,” declaring that it is a decree from Heaven that G-d has issued. The People of Israel dare not reflect upon it, or question it.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch in his monumental work, Horeb, A Philosophy of Jewish Laws and Observance, brilliantly explores the underlying details of the practical religious observance. In Horeb, Rabbi Hirsch categorizes the 613 commandments into six distinct categories: 1. תּוֹרוֹת, Toroth: Fundamental principles relating to mental and spiritual preparation for life, such as the sovereignty of G-d, Revelation, and love of G-d. 2. עֵדוֹת, Edoth: Symbolic observances representing truths which form the basis of Israel’s life. Examples are the prohibition of work on the Sabbath, the holidays of Israel, circumcision, Mezuzah. 3. מִּשְׁפָּטִים, Mishpatim: Declarations of justice toward human beings, such as the prohibition of murder, injury, assault and battery, lying, flattery, hypocrisy. 4. חֻקִּים, Chukim: Laws of righteousness toward the creations that are subordinate to the human being: toward earth, plant, animal, toward one’s own body, mind, spirit and word. Respecting all beings as G-d’s property. Respect for the feelings and instincts of animals. The prohibition of suicide and self-injury and self-ruin. 5. מִצְו‍ֹת, Mitzvot: Commandments of love. The obligation to strive through love to draw near to G-d. Respect for parents, age, wisdom, and virtue. Study of Torah and pursuit of general education. 6. עֲבוֹדָה, Avodah: Divine service. Prayer, communal worship, reading the Torah, reverence for the holy Temple and for schools.

While many of the laws of Judaism described in the six categories of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch have a rational basis, the Torah itself does not provide any rationale for the mitzvot, underscoring that the reason that the mitzvot are observed is not due to convenience, ethical or environmental values, but rather because they are decreed by G-d.

The Sifra Kedoshim 9, states that a person should not say: “I abstain from pig, because I don’t like it. Or I refrain from drinking blood or committing promiscuous acts because they are abhorrent.” Rather, one should say that the non-kosher foods may very well be delicious, and the immoral acts may be pleasurable, but G-d commanded not to eat or engage in these forbidden things. It is not because they are revolting or detestable.

Maimonides, in the laws of Meilah, 8:8, writes:

It is fitting for a person to meditate upon the laws of the holy Torah, and to comprehend their full meaning to the extent of his ability. Nevertheless, a law for which a person finds no reason, and understands no cause, should not be trivial in his eyes. Let him not ‘break through to rise up against the Lord, lest the Lord strike him,’ (Exodus 19:24), nor should his thoughts regarding Torah be like his thoughts concerning profane matters.

David Holzer, in his enlightening transcriptions of the recordings of Rabbi Soloveitchik, entitled, The Rav Thinking Aloud on the Parsha, quotes Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik as saying that the Rambam

is against ascribing lesser significance to Chukim, [statutes] or secularizing them. In other words, one must not interpret Chukim in practical terms, and inject contemporary meaning into them.

Continues Rabbi Soloveitchik,

You will ask me, what is the practical interpretation of Chukim? If a rabbi tries to interpret, מַאֲכָלוֹת אֲסוּרוֹת [forbidden foods] in terms of hygiene or sanitation, or הַמִּשְׁפָּחָה טָהֳרַת,[laws of family purity] in terms of sexual psychology…this is exactly what the Rambam meant should not be done. You don’t achieve anything by it… Educated people, intelligent people, scientific minds, cannot be so easily fooled.

Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that Jews of faith must accept and practice the statutes regardless of whether they fit into the frame of reference of modern civilization or not. Reverence and awe are required before the Divine Imperative. Surrender to G-d is the highest category of faith that reaches its apex when performing Chukim.

Once again, we find that it is necessary for humans to humble themselves before the Al-mighty, since the finite human being can never fully comprehend the Infinite G-d. A person of faith must be prepared to admit that there are many things that G-d has created and commanded that are beyond human understanding.

As one who has devoted much of his life trying to explain the complicated and perplexing aspects of Torah and Judaism to Jews of little or limited background, the preparedness to admit that “I do not know” is a veritable mantra for me that I readily employ, perhaps too frequently. As a Beginners Rabbi for the last 38+ years, I am often compelled to say that “I am just a Beginners rabbi. You will have to ask a real rabbi.”

Fortunately, my students’ questions often reflect my own inner inquisitiveness. I remember, as a young man, being challenged by things that I learned about Torah and Judaism. Having often been put into a position of trying to explain to others, I was frequently hard-pressed to find cogent reasons that would render these laws meaningful to myself, let alone to others.

During my teen years, as I read the weekly Torah portion and encountered problematic texts whose explanation and rationale eluded me, I began the practice of recording in a notebook all the issues that I found challenging. Each year, I reviewed the notebook and added to it. As I learned more about Torah, I was able to begin to address some of the questions, in fact, quite a few of the questions. And yet, there were some whose explanations continued to elude me, and found myself unable to fathom how the L-rd had commanded them. And yet, because I discovered along the way so many revolutionary concepts when I reviewed the Torah, and found so many truly rational and significant meanings to the questions that I had raised, that I soon came to the conclusion that it was only because of my inabilities, my own shortcomings, that I could not find the answers to the imponderable questions. There were answers, but I was just not up to finding them.

And so, the Jew of faith continues to believe and to act as if there definitely are answers, but not all answers are immediately available. We walk with pride, with our heads covered and wear our religious practices on our sleeves, because we have the confidence in a Judaism that has proven to be the most effective method of educating large numbers of people over long periods of time, to live ethical and moral lives. It is this marvelous educational method and the Al-mighty’s guide book, His Torah–that He has entrusted in the hands of the Jewish people, that has enabled the People of Israel to achieve these unprecedented successes.

As the old Yiddish saying goes, “Fuhn a kasheh schtarbt men nisht” You don’t die from a question! In fact, questioning is one of the great assets of Jewish life. We will struggle to uncover the answers, but we will not be defeated if we do not find answers to everything we ask.

It is with great pride that we receive the Torah that G-d  entrusted in our hands, and do the best we can to explain it, and to share its revolutionary ideas and concepts with the world. In this way we hope to lead humanity toward a life of greater goodness and kindness, reflected in humankind’s good and noble deeds.

May you be blessed.