Ritual's Mysteries

Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:2-9, 18-19)
By Rabbi Debra Orenstein

Die Weltenkuh (The World Cow) by Franz Marc via Wikimedia Commons CCThe Torah portion Chukat begins with, and is named after, the key word chukat. Chukat means "the law of" and specifically refers to the ritual law of the red heifer. What distinguishes a chok from other kinds of laws is its mystery.

Most Torah commandments have a basis in reason and logic. Chukim cannot be justified by rational arguments. There is no plausible explanation for why the ashes of an unblemished red cow are particularly powerful against ritual impurity. Nor can intellectual arguments justify why those ashes should have the paradoxical effect of purifying an impure Israelite, but rendering a priest who handles them impure. The chok of the red heifer, like the chok not to wear a blend of wool and flax, doesn't claim to be reasonable. It claims to be holy and to foster holiness.

Often people will tell me that what they love about Judaism is the freedom to question, to challenge, and to demand answers.

Abraham challenged God, based on the logical consequences of Divine morality. "Will the Judge of all the earth not do justice?" (Genesis 18:24) When the daughters of Tzelophe had challenged the inheritance law as it had been presented to them, God responded, "Well do [they] speak!" and issued an amendment (Numbers 27:7). "The shy [student] does not learn," Hillel warned (Pirkei Avot 2:5). So in every generation, Jews ask. And in every generation, the tradition, with its rich history of law and lore, addresses their questions. A true inquiry merits a thoughtful answer -- and sometimes a set of answers, or even a change in the law.

But if we say that Judaism welcomes and cultivates rational discourse, that doesn't mean that rational discourse is its highest value. Arguments -- even arguments "for the sake of heaven" -- are our process, not our purpose. We want to discern Divine will, to discover and act on truth as best we can. We want to serve God and humanity. We want deveykut (closeness to God) and kedushah (holiness). We want shalom (peace) and emunah (faith). There is something that Jews, I think, hold even dearer than the opportunity to question, and that is the opportunity to trust.

The most important things we do in life are (hopefully) not irrational, but they aren't driven by rationality. Do we choose whom to marry by logic? Do we have children because we weighed the pros and cons? Does our sense of mission derive from our ability to reason? Something higher and greater than reason guides us. When we learn to trust that "something," time and again it saves us.

Chukim operate from, and tap into, that "something higher and greater." They remind us that life is full of mystery, that there are many things -- significant things -- that we know but can't explain. They ask us to go deliberately beyond our logical minds, to give up our desire to understand something before we can accept it. The Children of Israel responded to words of Torah, saying, "Na'aseh venishma -- we will do, and we will understand" (Exodus 24:3, 7). In matters of utmost significance, you may need to act first in order, fully, to know.

We can theorize and offer commentaries about the red heifer. (Generations of Jews have, and that is a worthy subject for another column.) We can have philosophical discourse about mystery. Ultimately, however, with regard to chukim, reason bows to awe.

Also, with chukim, reason bows to love. In any relationship, there are times when your loved one will ask you to do something that doesn't make sense to you but somehow meets their need. There are many possible responses: You can argue. You can try to convince them it isn't necessary. You can "keep score" and consider whether they've been meeting your needs lately. You can decide that it's a manipulation or power play and resist giving them their way. You can delve into the question of why they have this desire. But if what they are asking isn't harmful, then I recommend doing it and saving the questions for later.

It's generous. It honors them. In fact, it's an opportunity to really practice love. Doing what makes sense is simple logic; you would do it for anyone and you might do it even if you weren't asked. But doing what doesn't make sense is a gift.

What do I -- a limited, flawed human being -- have to give to the Master of Universe? The laws of the Torah are for my benefit, not God's (Deuteronomy 10:13). Most commandments have a logical claim -- they make sense for the social contract and for my spiritual development. Chukim are the exception and, as such, they are an opportunity for me and for all Jews to show our love for God.

What do you give to the God who has everything? Your willingness. Your trust.


This article was first published at My Jewish Journal, a Patheos Partner, and is reprinted with permission.

Rabbi Debra Orenstein is spiritual leader of Makom Ohr Shalom synagogue in Tarzana and editor of Lifecycles 2: Jewish Women on Biblical Themes in Contemporary Life.

3/30/2010 4:00:00 AM
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