Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Parshas Chukas Balak 5769- The decree of the Torah

Parshas Chukas starts off with the statement “This is the decree of the Torah”.  It then goes on to the sacrifice of the red heffer and how it is used to purify people from tumat HaMeit- impurity contracted from a corpse, the only form of impurity which makes someone touching the impure item able to convey to the next person the highest level of impurity (av hatumah).  The procedure can be summarised as follows:

A red heffer was to be sacrificed by Eleazar, the deputy high priest.  Ramban discusses in depth whether this was a specific commandment for all time that the Kohen Gadol should not offer this sacrifice, whether it was only this once that the Kohen Gadol could not offer the sacrifice .  The conclusion (as I understand it) is that the Kohen gadol can, if he wishes, offer the sacrifce but is not compelled to.

So, the red heffer is sacrificed and then burnt completely on a large stack of wood and other items.  The ashes are collected.  When a person becomes impure from tumat hameit, they go to the kohen on the third and seventh dat of the purification period.  The ashes from the parah adumah are mixed with water, and sprinkled onto the person.At the end of the process, the impure person is pure, and the pure person is impure.  Where the great mystery lies in this sacrifice, is- how does a substance that provide purification, cause impur” decree so as to deter those who would mock the Torah and thus claim it is nonsensical?

Rashi remarks on this verse that the Torah explicitly uses the word “chok” (decree) is used whenever a law seems to be nonsensical and has no rational explanation.  Thus, he says, the word is used here in order to deter those who would attack the Torah, claiming this sacrifice is nonsensical.  yes, rashi says, we are aware, that of all the mitzvot in the Torah, the parah adomah is the one that we cannot understand- and the Torah tells us this fact!

HaRav Moshe Feinstein zst”l offers a very interesting insight into the use of the word “chok” here. He points out that the word chok is also used when it comes to how we purify utensils to make them kosher when they have been used for non-Kosher purposes by non-Jews.  In that case, he points out, the law is rational, sensible, seemingly obvious, so why is the word “chok” used?  The purpose, says Rav Moshe, is to make us sensitive to the fact that no matter how well we think we know a mitzvha, even if their appears to be an explanation from the Torah or Gemorrah or the Geonim- we should never presume to change the details of how to perform a mitzvah, even though we think we have a complete understanding of it, we cannot change what the Torah has written.  the use of the word “chok” when it comes to a seemingly obvious mitzvah, which a clearly visible explanation and understanding, is to sensitise us to the fact that, even there, we have to understand that there is an element to every mitzvah that comes from Hashem, and as such, an element that we cannot clearly understand.

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July 6, 2009 - Posted by | Parshah, Torah | , , , , , , , ,

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