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Shiurim & Adult Education
THOUGHTS FOR PARASHAT CHUKAT BY SIMON BRAUN
The opening chapter of Chukat is quite extraordinary in explaining to us the inexplicable. It deals with the laws of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer – the animal used to purify those people who became ritually unclean due to their contact with a dead body. There is little point in trying to understand the rationale behind the process as it makes no sense. Rav Aharon Kotler explains that whilst with all other mitzvot, one can try to come to some kind of understanding of the reasons behind them, the mitzvah of Parah Adumah is impossible to even begin speculating about. Even Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of men, was forced to admit that this was beyond him. This specific mitzvah forces us to accept that we cannot possibly understand the reasons behind the mitzvot given to us by Hashem and it would be unwise to speculate.
The mitzvah of Parah Adumah is referred to in the Torah as a Chok (statute) which is a law entirely beyond human understanding. However, why was this specific law not introduced as Chukat Haparah – the law of the red heifer? Instead, it is referred to as Chukat HaTorah – the statute of the Torah. This is most curious given that the chapter deals only with the issues surrounding the Parah Adumah. Chazal resolve this problem by saying that the intention is to teach us that even the more logical mitzvot, such as honouring parents and giving charity should not be performed because we understand their purpose and appreciate their value. We should perform them because this is the Divine will. It would be wrong to second guess Hashem’s intention in respect of any particular mitzvah. This is why the chapter opens with the words Chukat HaTorah – to indicate that just as we keep the incomprehensible law of the red heifer because we are commanded to do so, likewise the entire Torah should be fulfilled in this spirit and not on the basis of logic and human perception.
My late uncle Z’L was an extraordinary man and a Mengele twin. As a child he was subjected to experiments by the notorious Dr Mengele at Birkenau death camp. The horrors of the holocaust are something which are also inexplicable to us – beyond our understanding. But my uncle survived and ended up in Israel and on more than one occasion referred me to one of the most intriguing aggadot in the Talmud Bavli – Menachot 29b. Moshe Rabbeinu asks to meet Rabbi Akiva and is transported forwards in time and finds himself sitting in the 8th row of Rabbi Akiva’s class. Moshe listened to the discussions and became distressed when he did not understand what was being discussed. But when the students came to a certain matter and asked Rabbi Akiva where he had learnt this from, he said ‘It is the law given to Moshe at Sinai’ and Moshe was reassured. Moshe turned to Hashem and asked him why he was being given the Torah rather than the brilliant Rabbi Akiva. Hashem answered ‘Be silent – this is how I have conceived it’! When Moshe then asked Hashem to see Rabbi Akiva’s reward, he was shown Rabbi Akiva being tortured by the Romans. Moshe cried out in protest, ‘such Torah and such is its reward?’. Once again Hashem answered – ‘Be silent- this is how I have conceived it’!
The above Midrash demonstrates that there is much that we do not and cannot understand. The ways of Hashem are simply beyond our comprehension. Just as a young child will often not understand the reasoning behind his parent’s decision, we do not understand why we are told to keep certain mitzvot or why certain things happen. This is the lesson of Chukat Hatorah as related to us in this week’s sedra. We should strive to keep the mitzvot not because of some preconceived notion of the rationale behind the mitzvah, but because all mitzvot are Hashem’s will whether we understand them or not and the more mitzvot we keep for the right reasons, the closer we will come to Hashem.