What Do I Know?

Rabbi Wagensberg
Parshas Chukas
What Do I Know

Our portion opens with the topic of a Parah Adumah (red cow) whose ashes were used to purify people who became spiritually contaminated by coming into contact with a corpse. This subject matter is called a "chok" (a commandment to which no reason was given; Nu. 19:1-2).

One of the difficulties of a Parah Adumah is that although the impure become pure, simultaneously, the pure kohanim (priests) who prepare and administer the ashes, become impure.

This appears as a contradiction. If the ashes can purify the impure, they should make pure people even holier. Why do these ashes have opposite effects on different people? The answer is, we really do not know. Hashem never provided a reason for the mechanics of this directive.

The Satan and certain elements from the nations of the world taunt the Jewish people about our adherence to this commandment. They claim that it is ridiculous for us to observe this charge because it is irrational.

Therefore, Hashem called it a "chok," conveying to us that it is a decree before God, and we have no right to criticize it (Rashi, Nu. 19:2, citing Tanchumah 7). Not only that, but every Jew must be prepared to fullfil every single mitzvah (commandment) in the Torah as if they were all "chukim" (commandments without reason).

We can see this from the wording of the second verse of this parsha (portion) which says, "Zos Chukas Hatorah" (this is the "chok" of the Torah). Apparently, it should have said, "Zos Chukas Haparah" (this is the commandment of the cow) because we are talking about a cow. Why does it say, "Zos Chukas Hatorah?"

One answer is that this wording comes to teach us that we should be ready to fullfil the whole Torah as if all of its commandments were Chukim (Shvilei Pinchas).

The Ropshitzer Rebbe (Zerah Kodesh) says that there are several benefits to doing mitzvos without knowing the reasons behind them.

First of all, it demonstrates our Emunah Peshutah (simple faith) in God. Although we do not understand what is going on with a chok, we trust that Hashem knows what He is doing.

Additionally, doing mitzvos without reasons displays that we are doing God's will, not our own. We show that we do not do mitzvos only because it resonates with us, but because Hashem told us to do it.

Moreover, fullfilling mitzvos without knowledge of why we are doing them shows that we love God, because true love is without reason. If I love other because of a reason, I might not love other at all. I might just love the reason.

It turns out that doing mitzvos without understanding them is on a higher spiritual level that doing them because of the reason. Certainly, it is praiseworthy to learn, probe, explore, and investigate the reasons behind the mitzvos. This is part of Talmud Torah (the study of Torah). However, our attitude must be that we do mitzvos simply because Hashem told us to. Not because it makes sense to us. If a person does mitzvos only because it makes sense to him, he may be serving himself and not God.

This is why the Satan and certain elements of the nations taunt us about doing chukim. They want us to serve God on a lower spiritual level.

Therefore, HaShem cautioned us to keep the chukim, and the entire Torah as a chok, so that we serve Him on a higher spiritual level.

The Shvilei Pinchas adds that if someone does mitzvos only because he understands the reason, he may fall into the trap of the Yetzer Harah (evil inclination) who will argue that the reason does not apply to him, causing him to abandon the mitzvah altogether.

This is another reason why the Satan and some of the nations try to discourage us from keeping chukim. They want us to only keep the mitzvos that have reason, hoping that, eventually, we will rationalize that the reasons do not apply to us, causing us to discontinue observing them completely.

There is a Talmudic story which demonstrates the importance of keeping chukim. When asked how far the mitzvah of honoring parent goes, Rebbi Eliezer pointed to a certain gentile idolator, by the name of Dama ben Nesina from Ashkelon, whose honor for his father was phenomenal.

One day, the sages of Israel approached the home of Dama ben Nesina offering to pay him 600,000 for two precious stones he possessed. The sages needed those stones for the Avnei Shoham (Onyx stones) necessary for the shoulder pads of the Bigdei Kehunah (priestly garb).

Dama said that the key to the treasure chest in which the stones were kept, was underneath his sleeping father's head. Dama refused to wake his father up, even at risk of losing such a huge sum of money.

The sages waited outside until Dama's father woke up. Thinking that maybe Dama was holding out for more money, the sages offered to pay 800,000.

Dama said that he already decided to sell the stones to them for the original offer. And so, the Sages bought the stones for 600,000. By the next year, a Parah Adumah was born into Dama's corral. Once again the sages approached Dama asking to purchase the red cow from him.

Dama said that he knew that he could ask for all the money in the world and they would pay it. But, he only asked for the amount he lost from their second offer a year earlier. After paying 200,000, the Sages purchased the Parah Adumah from him.

We see from here that God does not withhold payment from anybody who does good, regardless of who he is. Whether a Jew or gentile, a believer in God or an idolator, Hashem pays each person what he deserves (Bavli Kiddushin, chap. 1, "Ha-isha Niknis", pg. 31a; Devarim rabba, 1:15; Yerushalmi Kiddushin, pg. 20a).

One question that could be raised is why did Hashem choose to reward Dama by causing a Parah Adumah to be born into his corral? God has so many ways of making a person wealthy. Why specifically through a red cow?

The Chiddushei Harim, Ketzos Hachoshen, and Maharal (Tiferes Yisrael chap. 41, Chiddushei Aggados Keddushin 31a) all say that it is because an angelic prosecution against the Jewish people occurred when Dama honored his father to such a degree. The angels criticized the Jews for not honoring their parents to such an extent.

Therefore, Hashem orchestrated that a Parah Adumah be born into Dama's corral to show how far the Jewish people are willing to go even for a chok.

Dama was willing to forego a huge sum of money for a mitzvah that makes a lot of sense. Honoring parents is extremely logical. Parents give life to their children. In healthy situations, parents clean, feed, cloth, and shelter their young. Dama was willing to make a sacrifice for something that resonated with him.

Obviously, Jews must be prepared to sacrifice for such mitzvos. However, Jews are expected to make sacrifices even for chukim that do not resonate with us, and do them anyway, just because Hashem said so.

Dama was right. We would have paid all the money in the world to do the mitzvah of Parah Adumah. This is what quieted the angelic prosecution.

When our parsha, speaking about a Parah Adumah, begins with the words, "Zos Chukas Hatorah", it is informing us that in the future the Sages of Israel will be willing to pay an enormous amount of money for the chok of Parah Adumah. By behaving this way with a Parah Adumah, they showed that they are prepared to keep the entire Torah in this way (Shvilei Pinchas).

When we keep chukim, it makes certain elements of the nations feel uncomfortable. Those elements are ready to do anything for what they believe in, as long as it makes sense to them. Otherwise, they don't bother. Why should they? It's illogical!

Those elements try to persuade us to only keep mitzvos that are logical. In this way, we are equal. After all, "All men were created equal" (Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Declaration of Independence, 1776). They want to keep it that way.

But, it's too late. Hashem already commanded us to keep chukim. When we do, we demonstrate our unshakable faith in God. We display our love for Hashem, willing to do His will, not our own. We also benefit by not discarding any mitzvah by rationalizing that the reason does not apply to us.

As a means of a practical application, may I suggest that we choose one mitzvah a day that before doing it we say, "I am doing this mitzvah because of ...(insert the reason for the mitzvah, if you know it), but, I am ultimately doing this mitzvah anyway just because Hashem said so." We could choose our pet mitzvah for this exercise or we can choose a different mitzvah each day. This practice will further help us become even greater Ovdei Hashem (servants of God) who just want to do His will.

So, may we all be blessed with vast Torah knowledge in understanding the reasons behind the mitzvos, and yet, may we also be committed to doing them out of love anyway, just because Hashem said so, thus fullfilling the mitzvah of "Kibud Av," meaning, honoring our Father in Heaven, and subsequently put the descendants of Eisav and the Satan in their places, in order that God purify us with the tenth Parah Adumah, when we will be able to serve Him in the final Beis Hamikdash (Temple), speedily in our days.