Parshas Chukas opens with the classic illustration of a chok, a biblical imperative that defies all human logic and rationale - the parah adumah. This red heifer was slaughtered, reduced to ash, mixed with water, and used to purify those who came into contact with the dead and became ritually impure.
Ironically, while the impure person is purified, the person who purified him, by sprinkling the water upon him, becomes impure.
Not only is this law incomprehensible, but, as Rashi comments, we do not even have permission to seek an explanation—a rather peculiar notion, as it seems to contradict the Jewish approach requiring us to study and interpret. The Rabbinic statement that there are "seventy faces of Torah" implies a freedom, or perhaps an obligation, to probe and to understand.
If we were created and blessed with the capacity to intellectualize and comprehend, should we not utilize these divine gifts that are ours?
What, then, is the function of a chok, and what role does it play in the panorama of Jewish observance?
There is always the danger that in emphasizing the power of the intellect, one may be inclined to view comprehension as the determinant of observance-observing only what one understands. This approach is totally unacceptable. The authority of a mitzvah lies not in our understanding of it, but in its being stated in the Torah.
There a number of safeguards incorporated in the Torah whose purpose is to protect the mitzvos and their observance.
Jews believe in reward and punishment, for example. The Rambam lists this as a fundamental Jewish belief. Yet, with little exception, the Torah does not specify the reward for each mitzvah.
This deliberate omission prevents us from using our intellect to try and determine which mitzvos are more important than others, a judgement which may impair our commitment to all the mitzvos equally.
The chok plays a similar role. Every mitzvah has a purpose that adds meaning to our lives.
The rationale of the chok, however, is kept from us, demanding our unquestioned commitment, regardless of whether or not we understand it. The chok is a continuous reminder that the authority of the mitzvah and our obligation to observe it come from the word of G-d.
When our ancestors were introduced to the Torah, their response was, "Naaseh venishma." Naaseh, first and foremost, we will accept and observe the Torah. Then venishma, we will commit ourselves to study and understand it.
Rabbi Jacob Reiner
Rabbi Reiner is Rabbi of Congregation Ohab Zedek, Belle Harbor, Queens, N.Y.
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