Parashas Chukas

Parashas Chukas begins with the law of the red heifer, a classic example of a chok – a Torah law whose reason is hidden from us, and which we must simply accept as a Divine edict. The Torah introduces the topic by stating (Bamidbar 19:2): “This is the law (chok) of the Torah, that Hashem commanded, saying ….” The Maggid expounds on the concept of observing Torah laws that we do not understand. He takes as a starting point the following passage (Tehillim 119:4-5): “You have commanded Your ordinances, to observe diligently (מאד). I pray: May my ways be directed to observe Your statutes (chukecha).” He explains as follows. It appears at first sight that the mitzvos can be divided into two categories: those that can be understood by the human intellect and those that are pure edicts. For example, there are mitzvos such as the prohibitions on theft, robbery, and the like, that have a rationale that we can grasp, and we understand intellectually that it is proper to adhere to them. And then there are Divine edicts whose purpose is hidden from us and known only to Hashem. But this dichotomy is too simplistic. For if we reflect on the mitzvos that we regard as within our intellectual grasp, we see that there are many details that seem to run counter to our human intuition, and must be regarded as well as Divine edicts that are beyond our understanding.
For example, regarding theft, our intuition says that the punishment should depend on the circumstances of the specific case. If a rich person steals from a poor person, leaving him penniless and causing him to starve to death, we would say that the offender should be punished with death. And conversely, if a poor person steals a small sum from a rich person to get money for a single meal, with the rich person feeling no effect from the theft, we would say that the offender should get a light punishment. But the Torah dictates that the punishment for theft is the same irrespective of the circumstances. The same is true regarding murder. Our intuition would say that the punishment for murder should depend on the victim’s situation: the punishment for murdering a young man with a wife and children who depend on him should be more severe than the punishment for murdering a terminally-ill old man who has been lying inert in bed for a few years. But Mishnah Shabbos 23:5 says that someone who closes the eyes of a person who is about to die, thereby hastening his death, is considered a full-fledged murderer.
We thus have to say that even with the mitzvos whose basic purpose we understand, there are aspects whose rationale is hidden from us and known to Hashem alone. This is the idea that David HaMelech is expressing in the passage from Tehillim 119 quoted above. David first declares: “You have commanded Your ordinances, to observe מאד.” We can read מאד as meaning exceedingly, and interpret the verse as saying that Hashem is calling on us to observe much more than what we can understand. David then prays: “May my ways be directed to observe Your chukim.” Here, David includes all the mitzvos in the category of chok, because they all have an aspect of chok.
Now, when a person delves deeply into the Torah, Hashem grants him, if he is worthy, knowledge of some of the hidden aspects of Torah wisdom. In this vein, Shlomo HaMelech says (Mishlei 2:1-6):
My child: if you accept My words, and store up My commandments within yourself, making your ears attentive to wisdom and inclining your heart to understanding: if only you call out to understanding, and lift up your voice to discernment – if you seek it out as [you would] for silver, and search for it as for hidden treasure – then you will understand fear of Hashem and find knowledge of God. For Hashem grants wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding. He stores up wise counsel for the upright; it is a shield for those who follow the straightforward path.
Similarly, Avos 6:1 teaches: “Whoever occupies himself with Torah for its own sake acquires many things … Torah secrets are revealed to him.”
However, while a Torah scholar may freely explain matters that are in the scope of the normal human intellect, such as the basic reason behind the prohibition on stealing, as a rule he may not share the unique understanding he has acquired of the Torah’s hidden wisdom. A passage in Chagigah 13a brings out this point. The Gemara relates that the elders of Pumbedisa asked R. Yosef to teach them the “Work of the Chariot.” R. Yosef replied: “Regarding this we have learned, ‘Honey and milk are under your tongue (Shir HaShirim 4:11)’ – the things that are sweeter than honey and milk should be kept under your tongue.’” The Gemara then presents R. Abbahu’s alternate way of deriving the prohibition. R. Abbahu says: “The prohibition on teaching the ‘Work of the Chariot’ is learned from the following verse (Mishlei 27:26): ‘Let the lambs ( כבשיםkevasim) be your clothing’ – things that are among the secrets of the world (כבשונו של עולםkivshono shel olam) should be kept under your clothing.” We can interpret the opening verse of the section of the Torah dealing with the red heifer as hinting at this principle. We can read the verse as follows: “This is the law of the Torah, that Hashem commanded to relate ….” Regarding mitzvos whose rationale is part of the hidden Torah wisdom, we are to teach the practical laws but not the hidden reasons behind them.
David Zucker, Site Administrator

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