Parshas Chukas: Explaining the Unexplainable
I like to ask questions. I like to challenge people. It’s part of what makes being a lawyer come easily to me. And it’s no coincidence that so many Jews are attorneys. It’s part and parcel of being Jewish that we like to ask questions and understand things.
Jewish men studying in Yeshivah spend hours every day debating the minute details of the Gemara. Even the way the text is written is generally in the form of a debate: This Rabbi says “ABC,” but That Rabbi asks, “What about XYZ?” The Other Rabbi responds by suggesting PQR, and on and on it goes.
So it should come as no surprise that in conversation with others, one of the most common phrases I come up against is, “There are just some laws I don’t understand…” usually followed by an example or ten. We don’t just like asking questions. We like getting answers, too. But the answers are only “good enough” if they make sense to us.
Once, when I was first becoming religious, I asked my friend Amy if she enjoyed covering her wild, red, curly hair. I also have long curly locks and I hated the thought that I would ever have to cover them up. Honestly, she replied that she didn’t really enjoy covering her hair. “Why do you do it, then?” I asked. “Because the Torah says to,” she responded, “and G-d gave us the Torah, so I’d better do what He says!” This idea of doing what G-d wants just because He is G-d and He surely knows better than I do was totally foreign to me.
Most people I meet knock their heads against this concept, just as I did. Shouldn’t we question? Don’t we frown on blind obedience? Well, yes, we should question and try to understand. But maybe we shouldn’t frown on blind obedience in quite the way Western culture would have us believe we should. In Judaism, doing a mitzvah just because G-d says so is the highest level we can reach.
That’s because it involves the total abnegation of our will to His. And unlike other religions, where a Pope or guru is followed blindly, we don’t bend our will to that of another fallible and subjective human being. We bend our will to that of our Creator by following His Torah, a completely objective instruction manual, free of whims, emotions, and prejudices.
In Parshas Ki Tisa, we learned about the Golden Calf and how worship of the Golden Calf symbolizes how the Jews put their own egos and wills before that of G-d. Which makes it an extremely fitting parsha to juxtapose with this week’s. In both, we have a cow – in Ki Tisa, a Golden Calf and in Chukas a Red Heifer – and in both we see the theme of subjugating our ego and will to that of our Creator. After all, Chukas is the epitome of laws we don’t understand (click here for a more in-depth explanation) and following them requires us to suspend our worship of our own intellect and understanding in favour of pure worship of G-d.
So let me make another connection between these two Parshas and in doing so propose a little bit of an explanation for the unexplainable. Perhaps the Golden Calf can give us a clue to understanding a bit about the Red Heifer.
I have heard it said that the Red Heifer comes to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf. In a way it makes sense that a cow, the mother, should atone for the sins of the calf, her offspring. After all, it is normal for parents to take responsibility for the actions of their children. If I go into a shop and Akiva breaks something, I am expected to pay for it. He is my responsibility. So too, the cow is responsible for the calf.
But on a deeper level it doesn’t seem to make as much sense. After all, they don’t have much to do with one another. Sure, the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) purifies the people, but it doesn’t exactly atone for their sins. It’s a purification ritual for people who have come into contact with dead bodies. The Golden Calf, on the other hand, was a situation of idol worship.
But on the other hand, they have everything to do with one another. Before the situation of the Golden Calf arose, G-d Himself had spoken to the Jewish people and given them the Ten Commandments. The Jewish people at that time were raised to the level of angels. Angels, remember, never die. But when the Golden Calf was worshipped the Jews came crashing down from their lofty level. Like Adam and Chava (Eve) who defied G-d’s word with the Tree of Knowledge before them, the worship of the Golden Calf brought death into the world again. Once again, the Jews were mere mortals who could die.
And death brings with it spiritual impurity. (This, incidentally, is also the reason why women become spiritually impure after getting their period – it’s a loss of potential life – and then must ritually immerse themselves in a mikveh before becoming spiritually pure again. Men who have nighttime emissions must do the same for the same reason.) Today, we don’t have the ability to become fully spiritually purified, but in the times of the Temple, we did. And the means of purification? The Red Heifer.
So the two are intricately linked. Although the actual workings of the Red Heifer remain a mystery to us, at least we can take a shot at part of its purpose. And in the meantime, we can work to cultivate within ourselves the humility to recognize that our limited intellectual ability can in no way come cloe to G-d’s, so how can we possible expect to fully understand Him? We should continue to ask questions, to try to learn and understand, but for those things that are beyond us, we just have to accept that He knows best.
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