G-d told Moshe and Aharon, "This is the statute of the law which G-d
commanded to be told." (Bamidbar 19:1-2)
This week's parshah reintroduces the concept of chok, a mitzvah whose
logic seems to be beyond the realm of human comprehension. As such, it
provides another opportunity to discuss the whole concept of mitzvot in
It is very easy to not to see the forest for the trees when it comes to
mitzvot. In other words, a person can perform a mitzvah in such a way that
it actually goes against what the mitzvah was intended to accomplish.
Obviously, in such a case, it is no longer a mitzvah, but try telling that
to the person who thinks he has just performed the will of G-d in the best
The goal of life is to get to the World-to-Come, as the Ramchal explains.
However, getting there, he explains, is a process of self-perfection:
G-d's purpose in Creation was to bestow His good to another . . . Since G-
d desired to bestow good, a partial good would not be sufficient. The good
that He bestows would have to be the ultimate good that His handiwork
could accept. G-d, however, is the only true good, and therefore His
beneficent desire would not be satisfied unless it could bestow that very
good, namely the true perfect good that exists in His intrinsic
nature . . . His wisdom therefore decreed that the nature of His true
benefaction be His giving created beings the opportunity to attach
themselves to Him to the greatest degree possible. For the intended
purpose to be achieved successfully, means must exist through which this
being can earn perfection. Man was therefore created with both a yetzer
tov and a yetzer hara. He has the power to incline himself in whichever
direction he desires ... The Highest Wisdom decreed that man should
consist of two opposites. These are his pure spiritual soul and his
unenlightened physical body. Each one is drawn toward its nature, so that
the body inclines toward the material, while the soul leans toward the
spiritual. The two are then in a constant state of battle. (Derech Hashem
It's like a king for whom a bride has been chosen, but who had not
actually grown up in a house of royalty. The point of marrying the king is
to have a lasting and close relationship. However, being that she is
marrying the king, the future queen must learn to play the part if she is
going to live in the palace and take her place on her throne next to her
husband, the king. Therefore, the king sends to his future wife all kinds
of tutors to instruct her in the way of royal life.
Likewise, G-d chose the Jewish people to be his "bride," so to speak, in
order that we should go to the World-to-Come and enjoy His Presence
forever. However, we did not grow up in a house of Divine royalty, but
rather we became a nation while living as slaves in Egypt. It is not
simply an issue of "moving" into the palace, but one of becoming
conditioned to play the role for which we have been picked.
Therefore, G-d gave us the Torah and said, "Here. Learn this. Live by it.
Follow its directions, and prepare yourselves for the time that we shall
live together forever. You are my beloved, but that is not enough to live
in the palace. To do that, you must educate yourselves in the way of
Divine royalty, and become a 'kingdom of priests.' I am holy, and to be
close to Me is to become holy as well."
Therefore, the goal is the relationship with G-d; mitzvot are the ways we
fashion ourselves into people who are fitting for such a relationship.
They are stepping stones to higher levels of holiness, and the higher we
go, the closer we come to G-d, the more worthy we are in terms of our
portion in the World-to-Come.
This is true of a mishpat - a mitzvah whose logic we understand, or a
chok - one that we cannot relate to.
Therefore, keep the commandments of G-d, your G-d; go in His ways; fear
Him. (Devarim 8:6)
This is why the Talmud can make such an outlandish statement. Imagine
being late on your mortgage payment, and running to the back a week later
and saying, "But I really intended to make the deposit. It was just that,
along the way, my car broke down . . . and by the time the service guy
came and towed my car, the bank was closing and I realized I'd never make
it. The next day was even worst, and the day after, don't even ask!"
What will the bank manager say?
"I'm really sorry to hear about your troubles," he may begin, "and the
truth is, I had a similar episode about a few weeks ago. But, the bank has
a strict policy about mortgage payments . . . I mean, how could the bank
survive if we let every client come in here with some story to explain why
they haven't kept up with their mortgage payments? We're going to have to
fine you . . . even though, you have to believe, if it were up to me, I'd
forgive you this time."
However, the Talmud says, "You wanted to do the mitzvah and your car broke
down? You ran to shul to make minyan and only eight other men showed up?
No problem. Since you weren't negligent and made a good effort to do the
mitzvah, from our perspective, you did it!" (Brochot 6a).
"Even though I didn't?"
"Even though you didn't."
According to Western thinking, "the road to Gehennom is paved with good
intentions." In Torah, it is the road to Heaven. This is what the Talmud
means when it says, "All is in the hands of Heaven except fear of G-d"
(Brochot 34b). Fear of G-d is a relationship thing, especially when the
fear being spoken about is not fear of punishment, but as the Hebrew word
implies, it means the "seeing" of G-d.
Thus, the Rambam taught in Hilchot Yesodei HaTorah (Ch. 2), "You don't
love G-d yet, even though there is a mitzvah to love Him, and you don't
know what to do? It's simple. Go outside and look at the universe, the one
around you and those beyond you. Think. Contemplate. Consider the awesome
wisdom necessary to make all of Creation, and all for man! Realize how
much good you enjoy, though you didn't do anything to merit it. Think
about that long enough," explains the Rambam, "and you will quite
automatically burst with love for G-d!"
What is the Rambam teaching us? He is telling us that love of G-d is the
most natural thing to feel. If we don't feel it, it is because we are
blind to the reality of G-d and all the good that He does for us. We have
taken life for granted, and the entire world in which we live in. Reverse
all of that, and love of G-d will flow through your veins even more
naturally that your own blood does.
So, is that what the mitzvot are meant to accomplish? Mitzvot are like a
spiritual anti-histamine, so-to-speak, to clear us out so that we can
breath spirituality again, and feel our innate love of G-d. They put us in
the right place, at the right time, and we put ourselves in the right
frame of mind so they can elevate us closer to G-d and allow us a taste of
eternity, even while still living in this world.
Thus, ultimately, it does not really matter if we are successful at
executing a mitzvah or not, as the Talmud states:
Whether we bring a lot or a little, as long as your intention is to
Heaven. (Menachot 110a)
However, that can only be true if one accepts all the mitzvot, and makes a
concerted effort to fulfill whatever mitzvot he can, given his situation.
If you can bring a lot and you bring a little, then what have you said to
G-d about your desire for a relationship with Him? Or conversely, if you
have only a little and you bring a lot, does that not state explicitly how
much you want to be connected to G-d?
Justice, justice you must pursue, so that you may live in and inherit
the land which G-d, your G-d gives to you. (Devarim 16:20)
That's why the Talmud can state that one who does a particular act as a
mitzvah has done a greater deed than one who does it because he wants to
do it anyhow (Kiddushin 30a). If you give charity because you like to give
charity, though it shows that you're a generous person, it does not show
how you wish to come closer to G-d. That is why nonreligious people can
give charity, and plenty of it.
Tzedakah, on the other hand, is charity that G-d commands us to do.
Charity in and of itself is not an act of righteousness, but tzedakah is
because, as the word implies, it is done because it is the righteous thing
to do. In other words, if G-d did not command me to do it, then I wouldn't
do it. Therefore, there is resistance on my part, and therefore when I do
it, it is to please G-d and is an expression of my desire to have a
relationship with Him.
Last night, I had a dialogue with one of my sons. My wife and I decided to
implement the idea of ten minutes of chores on a daily basis, to get my
children use to the idea of helping out around the house other than what
they do on Friday to get ready for Shabbos. Needless to say, the house
does not stay clean all week on its own, and it is too much for my wife
and I to stay on top of everything all week long. Besides, we're not the
main source of the mess.
As one might imagine, implementing such an idea is like trying to saddle
up a wild stallion. There was rebellion in the ranks, especially when they
found out that ten minutes ignored today becomes twenty minutes of chores
tomorrow. Before my son knew it, he was in debt forty minutes and was, to
put it mildly, freaking out!
When he finally calmed down, I asked him if I could talk to him about it.
Eventually he said yes, and I explained to him that, believe it or not,
the main part of the exercise was not to save us, his parents, extra work.
That is just a wonderful side benefit. The main benefit, I told him, was
to become a more responsible and appreciative human being, which can only
be to his benefit.
Intellectually, he heard, though emotionally, he still resisted. So, we
struck a deal: he comes home each day and asks what his chore is for ten
minutes that day without complaining, he gets the work done sometime
before bedtime, and we wipe the slate clean and start again. He agreed,
because I think on some level, he understood it was part of being in a
family, and showing his parents that he appreciates what he got.
As he left my little office (I work out of my home), he wasn't jubilant.
However, I still felt that something had been accomplished, as if a
barrier had been removed between the two of us. And, I know from personal
experience that if he follows through and performs his "mitzvah" as an
expression of obedience to a higher cause, he will, in the end, feel more
like one of us.
It works the same way for us adults and it is G-d's Will as well.
G-d told Moshe, "Speak to the entire congregation of the Children of
Israel and tell them, 'Be holy, for I, your G-d, am holy.'" (Vayikra
In this respect, chukim make even more sense. Rashi explains that a chok
is a mitzvah that has the Sitra Achra and the nations of the world
scratching their heads saying, "Huh?" What a strange way to define a
However, the truth is, he is not defining a chok, but rather, a mishpat.
As the name implies, a mishpat is a mitzvah that the Sitra Achra and the
nations of the world agree to, because they understand its benefit to the
betterment of society. They have no problem accepting them, regardless of
whether or not G-d commanded that we do them. Like the Negative Mitzvos of
the Torah, they are designed to protect the world from destruction.
However, a chok exists on a higher plane of holiness. It is like an
escalator leading to a higher dimension and much greater spiritual growth.
It may operate in this world, but only as a means to get to a higher
reality, one which the Sitra Achra and the nations of the world neither
understand nor pursue. Only a chok doesn't make sense down here in this
mundane world of everyday life. However, on the plane to which it belongs,
it makes perfect sense.
Thus, when one pursues a chok, he is in fact pursuing a closer
relationship with G-d. Not only is he doing a mitzvah purely as a function
of G-d's Will, but he is pursuing a higher level of holiness in order to
be more like G-d, to be more with G-d. This is what the Torah means when
it says, "Be holy, for I, G-d your G-d am holy." Paraphrased, it
means, "Pursue increasingly higher levels of holiness, for I am the
essence of holiness, so therefore, the holier you become, the closer you
are to Me."
That's why Korach had leverage with so many Jews in his argument against
Moshe Rabbeinu, especially over the right to officiate in the Mishkan.
Like Nadav and Avihu, he was simply pursuing a path of even greater
holiness. "Here G-d tells us to be holy, and to try to become even more
holier," Korach argued to Moshe Rabbeinu, "and you hold us back by closing
off positions to holiness that ought to be open to us!"
That's why Moshe Rabbeinu had the earth swallow up Korach, as if to say:
If you improperly pursue holiness, it brings you down, not up. Just recall
all the Crusades and Suicide Bombers who murdered so many in the Name of G-
d, to be "close" to G-d. There are some who tried to go so high, but the
Talmud reveals just how low they ended up.
That's why a chok has to come from G-d. Only He can determine a true path
to kedushah, and once He offers it to us, then we are able to walk it and
become more elevated. The golden calf was a man-made attempt at a chok;
the Parah Adumah is the admission that only G-d can create chukim, and our
performance of them with complete loyalty is a perfect expression of our
desire to be like G-d, and therefore become closer to Him.