Shrouded In Mystery

This week’s Dvar Torah is written by Rabbi Eli Hochner one of our Adult Learning and Growth Faculty members. Join Rabbi Hochner for "Job and His Life Challenges" Tuesdays: July 12, 19, and 26.
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Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

This week’s Torah portion, Chukat (Numbers 19 - 21), begins with a detailed description of the ritual of the red heifer. The Torah instructs Moshe and Aharon to take a red heifer, slaughter it, take its ashes, mix them with water drawn from a spring, and then sprinkle the water upon a person who’s become ritually impure by having contact with a dead body.
From the onset, the Torah calls this ritual a chok - a decree, meaning a law, which defies human logic. The reason for this, besides the fact that the procedure is shrouded in mystery, is an enigmatic one. The intention is to purify those that are ritually impure. In the process, however, the individuals who facilitate the ritual of purification become impure themselves! Thus, the Sages consider this ritual the quintessential chok - decree.
Among the 613 mitzvot of the Torah we find three different types of commandments:
  • Mishpatim - civil laws, that is, common sense laws such as do not murder, give charity, honoring parents.
  • Eidot - testimonies, mitzvot associated with historical events such as eating matzah during Passover.
  • Chukim - decrees, laws whose reason is not revealed by the Torah, such as the dietary laws.
Given that there are multiple chukim (decrees) in the Torah, why does this week’s parasha focus on the decree of the red heifer and distinguish it as “Chukat haTorah” - “the decree of the Torah”?
Perhaps the Torah wishes to teach us a crucial lesson that in fact applies to all the mitzvot.
Although most of the commandments are such that we can appreciate their moral / ethical / historical value, it is imperative for us to realize that part of each mitzvah has elements that are a chok – that which we do not understand.
Even regarding such intuitive commandments as, do not murder and honor your parents, there are aspects of those mitzvot that defy human logic. Realizing this is vital because otherwise a person would fulfill a mitzvah only when / because it meets with their approval, because it appeals to them or because it makes them feel good. A human being then becomes the arbiter of what is good.
History is replete with tragic examples of what has happened to various movements that were launched with noble and lofty ideals but because they proceeded to place human beings with their biases at the helm, quickly degenerated into the most cruel and oppressive regimes.
Thus, the portion proclaims, “this is the decree of the Torah!” If one wishes to fulfill any mitzvot of the Torah in the ideal manner, do so with a sense of devotion and commitment to G-d, not just because it meets with our approval.

Shabbat Shalom