We know that in a general sense, mitzvos can be divided into two
categories: Mishpatim - mitzvos that appeal to our sense of morality,
ethics, etc., and Chukim - mitzvos that ostensibly defy logic. The mitzvah
to honour one's father and mother is a mishpat - it makes sense, and is
something we might have thought of on our own. The mitzvah of tzitzis -
placing knotted strings on a four-cornered garment, is an example of a
chok. Rashi explains that the reason the Torah begins its description of
the mitzvah of the Red Heifer by stating, "Zos chukas Ha-Torah - This
[mitzvah] is a chok (19:2)," is because the Red Heifer defies all logic and
sensibility, more so than all other chukim. While chukim aren't intuitive,
they're not counter-intuitive either. In fact, if we delve deep enough into
most "non-logical" mitzvos, we're likely to find many very appealing
reasons. Wearing tzitzis, for example, serves as a constant reminder not to
stray "after our hearts and after our eyes (Bamidbar/Numbers 15:39)." Its
blue wool reminds us of the blue heavens, which conjures up images of the
holy Throne of Glory (Menachos 43b). The combined numerical value of its
strings (8), knots (5), and name (600) equals 613, reminding us of the 613
mitzvos. But Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, goes beyond defying logic - it
turns it on its head! One who is impure (through having had contact with a
corpse) must be sprinkled with its ashes, thereby removing his state of
impurity. Yet one who is not ritually impure and has contact with its ashes
is rendered impure, and must undergo ritual immersion!
Shlomo HaMelech (King Solomon) expended tremendous effort in an attempt to
understand the mitzvah of Parah Adumah, yet ultimately it was withheld from
him. "I said, 'Let me become wise!' Yet it was distant from me
(Koheles/Ecclesiastes 7:23)" - this refers to the mitzvah of Red Heifer
Yet in all its complexity and mystery, the deepest secrets of this mitzvah
were revealed to one man: Moshe. "To you will I reveal the reason behind
the Red Heifer - for everyone else it is a chok. (Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar
19:6)" If the Almighty, in His infinite wisdom, decreed that Parah Adumah
must be a chok - the chok to beat all chukim - the very "chok of the
Torah," then why was Moshe exempted from this rule?
The Gemara (Rosh Hashana 21b) contrasts the wisdom attained by Moshe to
that of Shlomo:
Fifty gates of understanding were created in the world. All of them were
given to Moshe, except one, as it is written (Tehillim/Psalms 8:6) "And You
have given him (Moshe) slightly less than the angels." Koheles (Solomon)
tried to reach the level of Moshe. A Heavenly voice called out, "It is
written in the Book of Truth (Koheles 12:10), 'There will never be another
prophet like Moshe! (Devarim/Deuteronomy 34:10)'"
Why does the Gemara refer to Moshe attaining "Fifty gates less one" instead
of "forty-nine gates"? And why does the verse in Tehillim, honouring the
deep wisdom of Moshe, do so not by stating what he attained, but rather by
what he was missing?
What is the idea of a chok? Why should Hashem demand we do things without
letting us in on their underlying reasons?
"The purpose of all knowledge," say the Sages (Bechinas Olam 13:45), "is to
realize we know nothing (of the Almighty/the Torah etc.)." The pinnacle of
all wisdom is to come to the recognition that all the spiritual insight we
imagine we've attained has not so much as scratched the surface. "[The
Torah] is longer than the lands and wider than the seas (Iyov/Job 11:9).
Deep, deep, who can reach it (Koheles 7:24)."
This is a hard pill for us humans to swallow. The whole idea of being
human, the defining point that separates us from the animals and the
plants, is our ability to understand and discern. Indeed, most of us
mortals never reach "the pinnacle of understanding" which is to know we
know nothing. Seemingly a simple concept (and one which is easy to pay lip
service to), attaining "nothingness," as it is known in kabbalistic
writings, is indeed the purpose of all wisdom. It recalls the verse (Iyov
28:12), "And (true) wisdom is found from nothingness."
Because by nature we have a hard time conforming to something we don't
understand, Hashem gave us certain mitzvos, chukim, which force us against
our will to comply with ordinances we don't understand, and don't even make
sense. By way of these chukim we overcome our need to "be in charge," and
attain the ability to submit to Hashem's greater wisdom, and to the fact
that we may never understand many things, both in the Torah and in life.
The one individual in the history of mankind who was not in need of such a
lesson was Moshe. "And the man, Moshe, was extremely humble, [more so] than
any man on the face of the Earth (Bamidbar 12:3)." Moshe didn't need to be
told, "Do it because I said so!" Moshe could understand everything, and yet
still recognise the frailty of his own intellect, something no one else
could do. Thus, "To you, Moshe, I will reveal the meaning of the Parah
Adumah - to everyone else it must remain a chok." [This simple yet elegant
thought was for the most part told to me by a good friend; I have adapted
If there are fifty gates of understanding, and the purpose of all knowledge
is to know we don't know, then it stands to reason that the "fiftieth gate"
is the gate of nothingness. [Fifty in Hebrew is the letter nun, which means
malchus (see Rashi, Tehillim 72:17) - the final of the ten sefiros or
emanations. The Zohar writes that of all the sefiros, malchus is the only
one that receives yet does not emanate, and compares it to the moon which
receives its light entirely from the sun.] Thus, in a sense, the fiftieth
gate is never attainable, for one who reaches that level in fact has
nothing. Perhaps Moshe did indeed reach the fiftieth gate, yet there found
he knew nothing at all. This could be why the verse describes the
exceptional wisdom of Moshe as, "And he was lacking." And it would also
explain why the Gemara refers to the "gates" given to Moshe as, "Fifty
minus one," and not forty-nine, for the fiftieth gate can never be given;
attaining it is not having it.
Most of us still have a long way to go before we reach the point where all
there is left for us to know is that we know nothing. In today's society
where everything is laid out for all to see, everything is questioned and
challenged, and nothing is sacred, it is harder than ever to serve Hashem
out of simple surrender to His greater will, and not based on what (we
think) we understand.
Have a good Shabbos.
This week's publication is sponsored by Mr. Henry
Fenig, in memory of his father, R' Elazer ben R' Moshe alav