Chukat: Because I Say So
“This is the decree [chukat] of the Torah” (Numbers 19:2).
Isn’t it amazing how, as we get older, our parents seem to become wise? It is the responsibility of any good parent to guide their child. But when the child asks for a reason why they should or should not do something, sometimes the parent realizes they will not understand the reasoning and simply says, “Because I say so.” But as we age, we start to realize that our parents’ commandments, which didn’t make sense to us then, make sense now. Sometimes it is because of our life experience, and often it is because we become parents to our own children. But as we grow, we recognize the wisdom that we didn’t understand in our youth.
This week’s portion (which is also read on the Sabbath after Purim) begins with this very concept. “This is the decree of the Torah” explains the commandment regarding the red heifer. A perfect red cow would be ritually slaughtered and burned, and then its ashes would be mixed with pure water and other ingredients to create a liquid used to cleanse a person who had come into contact with a corpse. On the surface, this makes no sense at all: Cleansing with the ashes from a dead animal? This practice is the epitome of the chuk, the decree we cannot intellectually understand.
Rabbeinu Bachya (1255-1340) teaches that there are three types of commandments in the Torah: commandments based on historical precedents, commandments that appeal to our minds and are easy to understand and “commandments the reason for which and the usefulness of which are completely outside our ability to understand.” The first group reminds us of our past, and the second group (which includes prohibitions against theft, robbery and murder) are easy to understand. It is the last group that is so difficult for us: decrees that we don’t understand but need to do anyway. Effectively, God is saying to do these things because He says so. For the arrogant modern mind, this is incredibly challenging. After all, how can an ancient document be wiser than our brilliant 21st century intellects? Where do ancient texts get away with telling us what to do?
These decrees are hard for us to justify for another reason as well. Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, the 18th century Chasidic master, reminds us that we are composed of both a soul from heaven and a body of earth. While the soul intuitively yearns to carry out God’s desires, the body rebels because it cannot fathom the reasons for these types of commandments. Because it is inherently difficult for us to perform a mitzvah that we don’t comprehend, the Berditchever believes that their observance merits us great spiritual rewards. When we make the conscious choice to surrender our will to God’s and perform a commandment that makes no intellectual sense (such as the red heifer), we are choosing to base our actions on faith rather than intellect.
This is an incredibly difficult thing to do, but also extremely worthwhile. When we make the choice to observe these decrees that make no sense, we open for ourselves the opportunity to grow exponentially. By following the path that God sets before us, even in the case of the red heifer (which, according to Mishnah Parah 3:5, only actually occurred nine times between the days of Moses and the destruction of the Second Temple), we create an opening of awareness of the spiritual aspects of Creation and of ourselves.
As parents, we give instructions to our children that may seem silly to them. As they grow in their own awareness and wisdom, the adult child starts to realize the hidden benefits of doing what they were told. And when they become parents themselves, it often becomes clear that while as a child they were not yet able to understand the reasoning, as an adult they appreciate the teaching.
God’s instructions can often be as incomprehensible to us as the words of a parent are to a small child. Yet if we can have the courage and faith to act on these sacred words in the same way that we encourage a child to listen to their parents even when it may not at first make sense, we may be able to reap greater rewards and understanding than we can imagine. The only way for anyone to know for sure is to try out some of these decrees (like keeping kosher or not mixing wool and linen together) for a while and see if they add an extra dimension to our lives over time and practice.
May we all have the courage to let go of our personal arrogance and surrender to a deeper relationship with life through the teachings of our sages.
Rabbi Michael Barclay
June 17, 2021
8th of Tamuz, 5781