Parshat Chukat: The Meaning of “Chok”

“This is the law of the Torah that Hashem commanded saying, “Speak to Bnai Yisrael and they should take for you a completely red cow that has no blemish and has never born a yoke” (BeMidbar 19:2)

Rashi is probably the most widely studied commentary on the Chumash. There are many comments of Rashi that are well-know and widely quoted. Unfortunately, in some cases these comments are quoted so frequently that we neglect to consider them carefully. As soon as we hear the beginning of the comment, we finish the quote in our minds and do not even think carefully about Rashi’s observation. The first comment of Rashi on this week’s parasha is one of those oft quoted texts, which may need more attention than it normally receives.

Before considering Rashi’s comments, let us first carefully study the pasuk it is intended to interpet. The pasuk above introduces the laws of the Parah Adumah – the red heifer. This animal is slaughtered and completely burned. The ashes of the heifer, with other ingredients, are required for the purification. Severe forms of spiritual defilement are treated with these ashes.

The passage describes the mitzvah of Parah Adumah as chukat ha’torah. In the translation above, this has been rendered to mean “the law of the Torah.” But this translation is an oversimplification. The term chok – as in chukat – is used widely in the Chumash. The term generally has three meanings. In most instances the term is used to identify the permanence of a mitzvah or law. In fact, the Torah clearly makes this connection by frequently using the term chok in the phrase chukat olam – a permanent chok. For example, the Chumash tells us the observance of Pesach is a chukat olam – a chok for all generations.[1] Here, the term chok communicates this idea of permanence.

In some instances the term chok refers to a right or portion assigned to a person or group by some authority. For example, there was a chok in Yosef’s time that the leaders of Egypt were awarded by Paroh a portion of land.[2] Similarly, the Chumash tells us that after the death of Nadav and Avihu, Moshe instructed the remaining kohanim that despite this tragedy they must still eat their chok – their portion – from the sacrifices offered that day.[3]

However, there are some instances in which neither of these translations seems appropriate. In these cases, the term chok seems to communicate that the law is a decree from Hashem. For example, in explaining the laws of Pesach Sheynee – a Pesach sacrifice brought by those who could not offer the sacrifice at its normal time – Moshe explains that the Pesach sacrifice must be offered according to all of its chukotav – according to its chok.[4] In this instance it is clear that the term chok does not mean “portion” and does not seem to be a reference to the permanence of the law for all generations. Therefore, in this instance and in other cases in which the first two translations do not apply, Targum Unkelus renders the term to mean “decree.”

So, what is the meaning of the term chok in our passage? Clearly it does not mean “portion” and there is no obvious reason to assume that the term is a reference to permanence. It is not surprising that Targum Unkelus renders the term to mean “decree.”

It is now possible to more accurately translate our pasuk as “this is the decree of the torah.” However, the meaning – and even the translation – of the pasuk is still somewhat unclear. There is another problem. What does the term torah mean? The term torah is used occasionally in the Chumash to refer to the entire corpus of law contained in the Chumash. However, this not the usual manner in which the term is used. Generally, the term refers to a set of detailed laws regulating a specific process. For example, the Chumash introduces the laws regulating the offering of the Mincha sacrifice with the phrase “this is the torah of the Mincha offering.”[5] In fact when the term is used to refer to the entire corpus of law contained in the Chumash it is likely that the term is being employed in a similar manner. The term Torah – used in this context – refers to the entire system of detailed laws regulating the various elements of our personal and national lives.

So, what does the term torah mean in our pasuk? It seems unlikely that the term refers to the entire corpus of law. If that were the reference, then pasuk would mean this is the decree of the entire Torah – implying that there is only this one single decree in the entire system of law outlined in the Chumash. However, there are many decrees included in the Chumash! Therefore, Rashbam rejects this explanation of the term torah in our passage. He suggests that the term torah refers to the detailed laws presented latter in the parasha concerning the transmission on tumah – spiritual defilement – by a dead body.[6] According to Rashbam it seems that the meaning of our passage is that there is an element within the laws of tumah and taharah – spiritual defilement and purification – that must be regarded as a decree. This element is the mitzvah regarding the Parah Adumah – the red heifer.

This raises an obvious question. Why is the mitzvah of Parah Adumah singled out from the laws regulating tumah and taharah and referred to as a decree? This seems to be the question that prompts Rashi’s comments.

Before we can consider Rashi’s response, we must consider a preliminary issue. As explained above, the term chok has three alternative meanings. The term often communicates the permanence of a mitzvah. Sometimes the term refers to a portion or right awarded by an authority. In other instances – as in our passage – it means “decree.” It is unlikely that the Torah would use one term in three completely different ways. Is there some common denominator between these three usages of the term chok? It seems that the term chok always makes reference to a law that rests on authority. A law is permanent because it comes from Hashem. A portion or right that is awarded by authority derives its significance through the sponsorship of the authority that bestows the right or portion. A decree is – by definition – a law that is based on the authority of the body of king that establishes the decree.

This gives more meaning to our passage. The pasuk is communicating that the mitzvah of Parah Adumah – in some sense – is to be understood as resting on and dependant upon the law-giver. In this case the law-giver is Hashem. In other words, in describing this mitzvah as a decree, the Chumash is communicating that appreciation of the mitzvah of Parah Adumah requires that we recognize the authority – Hashem – who has decreed it. What special characteristic of the mitzvah of Parah Adumah demands this recognition?

Finally, we are ready for Rashi’s comments. Rashi explains that the Satan and the nations of the world taunt the Jewish people regarding this commandment. They ask, “What kind of mitzvah is this and what is its reason?” Therefore the Chumash tells us that is a decree from Hashem. We are not permitted to cast suspicion upon it.[7]

It’s clear from Rashi’s comments that there is some odd element in the mitzvah of Parah Adumah that is destined to evoke ridicule. What is this element? Many commentaries suggest that this ridicule would focus on a specific odd law regarding the Parah. As we have explained, the ashes of this Parah are used in the purification process from severe forms of tumah. However, in their preparation the ashes actually transmit tumah. In other words, one who comes into contact with and handles the ashes during their preparation is himself defiled. So, these ashes which are a source of defilement are somehow able to restore purity![8]

However, this does not seem to be the issue that concerned Rashi. Rashi bases his comments on a text from the Talmud. In his commentary on that text, Rashi explains more fully the difficulty in understanding the mitzvah of Parah Adumah. He explains that Parah Adumah is one of the commandments in the Torah for which there is no apparent explanation or apparent benefit. He explains that this characteristic evokes the criticism of the he Satan and the nations of the world. They argue that the Torah cannot possibly be true! How can the Torah be true if it commands us to perform mitzvot that have no apparent benefit? To this criticism the Chumash responds that these mitzvot are decrees from Hashem and rest upon his authority. [9]

Let us now summarize Rashi’s comments. The Torah alerts us that the mitzvah of Parah Adumah is a decree. Rashi explains that this alert is important because this mitzvah is one of a group that have no apparent rational or purpose. This characteristic will expose these commandments to criticism and ridicule. The Satan and the nations of the world will challenge the truth of a system of law that includes commandments that have no apparent purpose. We are to respond that these commandments are decrees from Hashem and therefore, rest on His authority.

Frankly, it seems unlikely that the wily Satan and hostile nations of the world will be much impressed by this argument. These critics obviously do not accept the authenticity of the revelation at Sinai. Yet, we are advised to respond to their disparagement with the reminder that the mitzvot are Hashem’s decrees!

Again, Rashi’s comments on the Talmud provide a clearer understanding of his intention. Rashi explains that the term “Satan” is a reference to the yetzer harah – our own internal evil inclination.[10] In other words, Rashi is describing an internal dialogue. The response that Rashi and the Talmud are suggesting is not intended for the person the scoffs at revelation. Instead, it is designed to respond to our own internal doubts. When others criticize mitzvot like Parah Adumah that have no apparent reason or when we ourselves are mislead by our own internal desires, we are to remind ourselves that these seemingly arbitrary commandments are decrees from Hashem and rest on His authority.

Still, Rashi’s comments are difficult to fully understand. Rashi is describing an internal debate that may take place within us. But the nature of this debate remains unclear. If a person is experiencing doubts about the truth of the Torah, how will one be rescued with a reminder that these troubling mitzvot are Hashem’s decrees?

Klee Yakar provides an important insight into this issue. After quoting Rashi’s comments, he explains that the criticism described by Rashi is not at all unreasonable. He explains that we have every reason to expect the mitzvot to make sense. The Chumash tells us that if we observe the commandments the nations of the world will admire us. They will praise is as a wise and understanding nation.[11],[12] This insights suggests a clearer understanding of the internal dialogue described by Rashi. Klee Yakar suggests that we are to conduct ourselves in a way that demonstrates the deep wisdom of the Torah. However, this very obligation evokes a problem. How are we to conduct ourselves as intelligent and wise individuals if we are required to observe commandments that have no obvious meaning? It is natural to be troubled by this paradox. In fact, to not be concerned with this issue, suggests that one is not committed to the obligation to conduct one’s affairs intelligently. It is inevitable that a person who takes this obligation seriously will experience a deep level of confusion. How do we respond to this confusion?

Now, let us reconsider the response discussed by Rashi. There are two important marks of intelligence. First, it is incumbent upon us to try to understand and appreciate the wisdom of the mitzvot. We cannot regard ourselves as wise, intelligent individuals if we close our minds to contemplation. But there is a second element of wisdom. We must have humility. True wisdom should generate a sense of humility. Humility demands that we recognize the limits of our own insight. A humble person recognizes that there are some mysteries that he cannot resolve. Just as there are elements of the created universe that defy human understanding, it is reasonable to assume that there may be elements of the revealed law that are not completely within human grasp. Therefore, by recognizing the source of the Torah we can resolve our confusion.

[1] Sefer Shemot 12:14.

[2] Sefer Beresheit 47:22.

[3] Sefer VaYikra 10:13.

[4] Sefer BeMidbar 9:12

[5] Sefer VaYikra 6:7

[6] Rabbaynu Shemuel ben Meir (Rashbam) Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 19:2.

[7] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 19:2.

[8] Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Beresheit, 9:2.

[9] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Yoma 67b.

[10] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on the Talmud, Mesechet Yoma 67b.

[11] Sefer Devarim 4:6

[12] Rabbaynu Shlomo Ephraim Lontshitz, Commentary Klee Yakar on Sefer BeMidbar 19:2.