The meaning behind the mitzvot

The meaning behind the mitzvot

This week’s parasha is called Chukat, taking its name from the opening words — “zot chukat haTorah,” this is the statute (chok) of the Torah. The statute in question is the law of the parah adumah, the red heifer, which was sacrificed and burned so that its ashes could be mixed with water and used to purify those who had become ritually impure through contact with a corpse. It’s a perplexing law — while it purifies those who are tamei (ritually impure) It’s a perplexing law – while it purifies those who are tamei (ritually impure), all those who participate in preparing the ashes for use become tamei through their efforts.

The first thing that the Rabbis notice is that this law is called “chok.” They recognize that the Torah contains different types of laws. There are laws that are logical because they are needed for society to function — prohibitions of murder, theft, adultery, and more. Other laws are not by themselves logical, but the Torah provides an explanation — Shabbat (God rested on the seventh day), matzah on Pesach (the Israelites’ dough had no time to rise), etc. And then there are the chukim (plural of chok), laws that have no discernable reason beyond “because God says so.”

In many ways, chukim are of particular importance. They teach us that Torah is not simply a matter of reason or contemporary ethics — it is God’s prescription for how we are to live. If all laws can be derived by reason, or if we can pick and choose and observe only the ones that make sense to us or appeal to our moral or aesthetic preferences, we deny God. However, if we do what we don’t understand because God commands it, we publicly show our faith in God’s goodness and wisdom. That is, even if we don’t understand, we know that what God commands encompasses the ethical and the just.

In the Sifra, an early commentary on the book of Vayikra, we find this: 

Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah said: A man should not say I can’t abide wearing shatnez (a prohibited combination of wool and linen), I can’t abide pork, but rather — I can, but what shall I do when my Father in Heaven has declared such things out of bounds for me?

It goes without saying that no human being knows the mind of God. But while our understanding must be incomplete, this doesn’t mean we have to abdicate our minds. Judaism is more than blind obedience. In fact, much of what we call midrash is an ongoing attempt to derive lessons from the words of the Torah and apply them to contemporary life.

Take the case of the parah adumah. One explanation is that the very irrational nature of this mitzvah — that the ashes of the red heifer that render one person ritually pure simultaneously render others involved in their preparation ritually impure — makes it clear that this is not magic; the substance has no inherent power, but it is God who cleanses.

Another explanation: The difficulty involved in removing the ritual impurity that comes from contact with a corpse is meant to prevent too much holding on to the dead — those who mourn cannot embrace death but must return to living.

Yet another explanation: From this ritual of reinstatement, we learn that no one, no matter what sin he or she has committed, is beyond forgiveness and reinstatement in the community.

There are many more explanations, and the process continues to this day. In other words, while we cannot know why we have been given these laws — that is, God’s reason — our attempts to investigate and explore mitzvot add meaning to our lives.

Zot chukat haTorah — this is the law of the Torah

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