Musings of an Orthodox Jew

Thoughts on Torah and the Jewish world today.

Parsha Matos Masei 5770: Question

Parsha Questions: 1) In this weeks parsha G-d commands Moshe to gather the army to fight Midian as a last?
act prior to his death. How do we know the tribes were reluctant to go to war knowing it would lead to Moshe leaving to his death?

2)Eleazar states that items should be purified according to its use- i.e. items used with fire are cleansed with fires, items normally cleaned with water are cleansed with water. This seems immenently logical, yet Elazar calls these laws a “chok”- a category of law that implies there is not a logical reason for them. Why is the term chok used here?

This weeks Parsha; The double portion of Matos Masei Bamidbar (Numbers) 30:2-36:13

The answer for the first question is from Midrash Tanchuma on this parsha. The midrash states that Moshe could have extended his life by postphoning the battle with Midian. Moshe was always zealous to carry out the commandments and will of G-d thus he immediately gave the order for the tribes to send 1000 men each to go to war. However, the men did not wish to go as they did nto want Moshe to die- thus first it states that a thousand were given from each tribe and then in Chapter 31 6. Moses sent them the thousand from each tribe to the army, them (…) ו. וַיִּשְׁלַח אֹתָם מֹשֶׁה אֶלֶף לַמַּטֶּה לַצָּבָא אֹתָם(…)

Why did Moshe have to send them even though it had been recorded that he had already ordered them to war? Because the army delayed to try and extend Moshe’s life!
Question 2’s answer is from” Darash Moshe “- commentary on the Torah by HaRav Moshe Feinstein zs”l on Parshas Chukas. there he makes an interesting observation: it does not say “This is the chok (decree) of the red heffer” but rather “This is the chok (decree) of the Torah”. Now, a chok is a specific category of law that is seen to not have a rational explanation, but is rather something that is decreed by G-d and thus we do it regardless of whether or not we understand it. This is the epitomy of the statement that Bnei Yisrael made when they stood at mount Sinai when they received the Torah “We will do, and we will understand”- in other words, we will do the entire Torah regardless of out undertsanding. HRav Feinstein points out that this statement encompasses the entire Torah, not just the parts referred to in chukim- thus at the parah adumah (red heffer), the Torah reminds us that we dedicated ourselves to follow the ENTIRE TORAH as a decree from hashem regardless of our understanding! every law, every commandment in the Torah is as much a chok, a decree, from G-d that we have undertaken to perform regardless of out level of undertsanding.

Now this explains why the Torah explictly calls the Parah adumah a chok- it is an example of a decree we cannot understand but perform since the entire Torah is a chok we agreed to uphold, and why the Torah calls the purification of utensils a chok even though it appears to be sological, because it, too, is part of the chol fo the Tprah and thus something we do regardless of whether or nto we understand or agree with the understanding of the law.

At a more esoteric level, the association of a seemingly logical law with the term chok serves to remind us of something else: the law seems logical to us, but do we truly understand it? Can we understand a law that was given to us by G-d/ Does our understanding truly reflect every aspect of the law as understood by G-d? Can us, as finite beings, understand what G-d intends from the law? Do we have a full understanding of the ramifications and every nuance of this law? Obviously these questions have to eb answered: NO, we cannot understand G-d, his thought processes, his intentions etc. Thus we have to treat each and every law as a chok regardless of how logical it seems! Why? Imagine if we decided that some laws can be fully and completely understood and that nothing was lacking in our understanding. So, with our complete understanding we look around and decide that the reason for the law is gone and thus we can ignore it- after all, we have fully understood it and every nuance, why do something not necessary? Thus the Torah calls a logical law a chok, why it calls iteself a chok- our understanding can never be perfect- and thus we have to continue to do each and every law regardless of whether or not it makes sense to us!

July 6, 2010 Posted by | Parshah, Torah, Weekly Question/Issue | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Parshas Chukas 5770- Parah Adumah

1) What is so unusual about the Parah Adumah that other nations would mock the Jews?
2) Why was it specified that Eleazar must be the one to offer the sacrifice?

This weeks parsha; Parshas Chukat Bamidbar (Numbers) 19:1-22:1


The answer frequently given to this is that it makes no logical sense since it makes the pure impure, and the impure pure. However, Ramban has a difficulty with this answer as none of the sacrifices for the sake of purification make much sense. How does the sacrifice of a zav or a woman after childbirth remove the impurity? Perhaps the idea of a mikveh makes sense in that you could say that the water “washes” away the impurity- but the mikveh is insufficient without a sacrifice- and there is no logical connection between the removel of impurity and a sacrifice. so why is it this sacrifice where it is emphasised it is a “chok”? Why is it with this sacrifice that we state that the nations of the world would come to mock?

There is an interesting facet to this sacrifice- it is central to Judaism. It is the only means for the nation to remain pure over an extended periond of time- and in the modern era we are all assumed to be impure because of Tumas Meis since we have not been able to purify ourselve for so long. Considering its importance, one would expect it to be mandated to be offere in the most important place- on the inner alter- and f not there, at least within the Temple or Mishkan. Yet, for all its importance, it does not take place in eithr of those places- but outside of the Temple and the Mishkan! Outside- where everyone can see it, where everyone can question it, and thus why this sacrifice unlike the other Tohoros sacrifices which re within the walls of the Temple, will be visible and open to mockery.

One would also expect that due to its importance, it would be assigned to the most important figure- the Kohen Gadol. However, while the Kohen Gadol can offer the sacrifice- it is not restricted to him. Any Kohen can offer the sacrifice and we learn this from the assigning of Eleazar to perform this very first sacrifice of a parah adumah. If so, then why not Itamar? He would be a better example of any Kohen being allowed to do it? The answer is simple- out of respect for Eleazar and not to slight his honour, G-d ordered that it be him and not his younger brother.

Ramban also brings additional reasons why Aharon was not the one to offer the parah Adumah:
1) because of his involvement with the golden calf, it would not be appropriate for him to be associated with the parah adumah
2) as the first annointed Kohen Gadol, G-d did not want him to perform sacrifices in an area of lesser sanctity than the Mishkan, and thus assigned this sacrifice to another as a sign of the holiness of Aharon

Note: as always discussion, comments, questions are welcome

June 15, 2010 Posted by | Parshah, Torah, Weekly Question/Issue | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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