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Posted on July 7, 2022 (5782) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

This is the decree of the Torah[2]

The Torah calls the parah adumah protocol a chok/decree, says Rashi, because the world looks upon us with derision for practicing a ritual that contains an internal contradiction. How can the same object make the ritually pure tamei, while purifying those who are impure? Our response has to be that we are in no need of understanding it or how it works. It is a decree from on High, and we accept Hashem’s authority to ask us to do what He demands.

One might easily conclude that parah adumah in fact is an arbitrary demand, and actually makes no sense. This, however, is demonstrably false! When Shlomo, the wisest of all men, wrote, “I thought I could be wise, but it is beyond me,”[3] he meant that he did not succeed in fathoming the wisdom behind parah adumah.[4] The wisdom is there; Shlomo just didn’t grasp it.

Perhaps Hashem decided He simply didn’t want to share the wisdom of parah adumah and all other chukim with us? The wisdom is there; he decided to keep it under wraps. I cannot accept this. Chas v’shalom to attribute to Hashem any ungenerous spirit. If there were any good reason for us to know, He would have shared it with us.

No. His decision to leave us uncomprehending about chukim is born of an important principle. I will illustrate.[5] Take a common object like a car. People – some people at least – are curious as to how it works. They find out about the engine – how it is powered, and how explosions in the cylinders turn into a spinning motion that is transmitted to the drive axle. This sets their minds at ease. They now comprehend why every part of the car “must be.” In fact, every part of the explanation adds a host of new questions, other things they never thought of that they now do not understand. Why do those parts work the way they do? How do they deal with heat, friction, etc. The “must be’s” really are not so obvious at all. Yet, people are placated. Why is this?

The principle is that you cannot compare people’s reactions to things they have no way of grasping at all, and those to which they feel they some approach. The approach may come laden with many more questions and issues, but they nonetheless are not so bothered by that.

Every mitzvah, without exception, has its reasons. The approach to a mitzvah may leave many questions unanswered, but the approach makes it easier for people to engage. Nonetheless, we find that Hashem chose to withhold reasons and approaches from a small number of mitzvos that we call chukim. Why?

Consider a teacher trying to not only convey wisdom, but to build a long term teacher-student relationship. If he choses to weigh down his young students with innumerable facts, none of which are explained, his students will not gain anything but rote memorization. The lessons will be burdensome and unattractive, because they will have experience no taam, no pleasure in learning things they do not grasp at all. Yet, going to the other extreme would be a worse mistake. Should he thoroughly explain every detail of everything he teaches and their reasons, he will build no relationship. Students will be enthralled with the beauty of each concept – and demand the same reasonableness and clarity of every new area they study. They will never be able to accept other important information and insights that the teacher has, and that they need for life. Their acceptance of anything the teacher says will be predicated on their being first convinced that they understand, which is not always efficient or even possible.

What should the teacher do? He should ignite their excitement in many areas. That builds trust. It gives them an approach to the wisdom of the teacher. Then, when he needs to convey other things without the fireworks, they will listen nonetheless.

Hashem is the master teacher. He revealed the reasons for many mitzvos. Those reasons inspire us to seek more of Him. They establish a relationship. They create an approach to Torah. But He chose not to reveal the reasons for the chukim, charging us to accept them as His will that must be obeyed. The goals for both sets of mitzvos is the same: to do His bidding.

The Alter of Kelm saw all of this in a pasuk in Shir Hashirim.[6] “The words of His palate are sweet, and He is all delight.” There are mitzvos in the Torah that distance us from abominable activities, and abominable objects. To boot, He throws in the promise of rich reward for observing these mitzvos! Nothing could be sweeter than this! When we consider this, we realize that all of the Torah is a delight, even the restrictions that we do not fully understand.

Chukim remind us that we never fully understand any part of Torah. All we ever get is an approach that makes it easier for us to observe its commandments. At the same time, they afford us an opportunity to assert to ourselves that everything in Torah is ultimately reasonable and a refraction of Hashem’s supernal wisdom.

  1. Based on Daas Torah by Rav Yeruchem Levovitz, zt”l, Bamidbar pgs. 183-184
  2. Bamidbar 19:2
  3. Koheles 7:23
  4. Tanchuma, Chukas #6, end
  5. I have substituted an illustration for the one that Reb Yeruchem uses, which would not be so effective today.
  6. Shir Hashirim 5:16