Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Parshat Chukat

I just started this week’s parsha (so I’ll probably post more on it later this week), but immediately I got inspiration! The parsha starts off with the sacrifice of the red heffer. Rashi states that the reason the parsha starts off stating up front that this is chok (statute without apparent explanation) is that Hashem is aware that outsiders will look at this law and mock the Jews because of it.

“What, the person who burns and creates the ashes is impure, but one sprinkled with the ashes becomes pure? And The person doing the sprinkling must be pure, and becomes impure, but the person sprinkled becomes pure? This is bizarre, either a substance purifies or it makes people impure, how does it create the opposite of the person’s current condition in them? This proves the Torah cannot be correct since this law is so counter intuitive!” So, God states up front- this law is one that does not have an explanation, it cannot be understood- yet we must obey it! How important is this law? Without it, somebody who has contracted tumat meit (impurity from a dead body) is subject to the penalty of kares (spiritual excision) if they enter the precepts of the Beis Hamikdash. In order to emphasise this point, the Torah makes it clear that the same applies to the camp of the Levi’im in the desert!

A quick word on the camps- In the desert the camp of Bnei Yisrael was divided into three- the camps of the three tribes (which a person with tzora’as had to be outside of), the camp of the Levi’im (at a holier level) and in the center the Beis Hamikdash and the third camp around it (the holiest level). These corresponded to the Temple in the following way- the whole of Jerusalem equated to the camp of Bnei Yisrael, the Beis Hamikdash to the camp of the Levi’im, and the Heichal to the camp of the mishkan.

Now, the idea of an inexplicable law which no one understands, yet must be done, led me to this line of thought: How often we do meet people (especially from the more liberal movements), who will state- “The reason for x law is not known (or I do not know it) and thus it is not necessary to observe it? Or “x law is outdated, the reason for it no longer exists, therefore we should not observe it.” Both of these statements show a fallacious thinking that is shown up in our parsha.

The first line of reasoning equates personal knowledge with what we have to observe. Yet we are told that when the Jews accepted the Torah they stated “Na’aseh v’nishma” “We will do and we will understand”- in other words, doing trumps understanding- our personal understanding is immaterial, we have to do what we are commanded to do, regardless of whether we understand why we do something. The sacrifice of the red heffer underlines this- we do not understand why it works, or how it works, yet we do it lest our souls be eternally cut off from God!

The second line of reasoning is essentially stating that human understanding trumps the commandments of God. This line of reasoning assumes that why we think a law is there, is the reason for the law! But the problem here is that we cannot be sure as to why we obey any commandment. We may THINK we understand, but we cannot know whether our understanding is correct or not. Once again, the red heffer underscores this point- here is something we CANNOT understand, yet it must be done. Now, if there exists laws for which it is clearly stated there is no rational explanation, how can we know whether other laws, where we think we understand them, do not have some element of divine understanding to them that is beyond our understanding?

In summary: The parah adumah emphasizes to us the nature of the Torah- we can study it, we can offer explanations to it (and apparently Rabbi Akivah offers an explanation for the parah adumah, but I have never read it), but in the end- we have to understand that the mitzvoth of the Torah are a “chok l’Bnei Yisrael”- a statute for the Jews- we obey it because it comes from God- not because we understand it!

June 30, 2008 Posted by | Parshah, Torah | , , , | Leave a comment