Make Up Your Mind: Is it a Chok or a Mishpat? by Marc Poleyeff


Parashat Chukat begins with the interesting discussion of the Parah Adumah, the red heifer used to purify people from Tumat Meit. Rashi explains that the word “Chukat” used in conjunction with this law means a rule whose reason we do not grasp. Since the nations of the world would question Bnei Yisrael regarding the reason and claim that Parah Adumah makes no sense, Hashem makes clear that it is a decree from Him and no one can question it. However, after the details of the Parah Adumah are delineated, Rashi quotes Rav Moshe HaDarshan, who explains that the Parah Adumah was atonement for the Cheit HaEgel. These two comments seem contradictory. How should we look at all of the details of the Parah Adumah? Should we try to find some reasoning behind it, as Rav Moshe HaDarshan does, or should we simply leave it as a Chok that we cannot understand?

David HaMelech calls out to Hashem, “Tuv Taam VaDaat Lamdeini Ki BeMitzvotecha He’emanti,” “Teach me knowledge and good reason, for I have believed in your Mitzvot” (Tehillim 119:66). David expresses his wish to learn the reasons of Hashem’s Miztvot, yet he still believes in their validity regardless. There are two ways to view the reasons for Mitzvot.  On the one hand, one might do Miztvot only if he understands them. Alternatively, one could do the Mitzvot with a full heart and then try to find an understanding of them that might strengthen his performance of them. Thus, David tells that us that he sought only the reasoning of the Mitzvot after he was fully committed to them.

Similarly, Rashi adopts this approach when addressing the Parah Adumah. He first explains it as a Chok, because one must first perform this Mitzvah in all its detail even if he does not understand its reasoning. Only after he has performed the Mitzvah can he start looking for reasons for the Halachot of the Parah Adumah.

More than any other Mitzvah, it is imperative that the Parah Adumah be accepted as a Chok. Chazal make a connection between three events: the Cheit of Adam and Chavah, the acceptance of the Torah, and the Cheit HaEgel. The sin of Adam and Chavah was rectified by the acceptance of the Torah, which subsequently was negated by the Cheit HaEgel. The sin of Adam and Chavah was caused by their desire to be like Hashem. They wanted knowledge that would be equal to that of Hashem. At Matan Torah, Bnei Yisrael said “Naaseh VeNishma.” If we define “Nishma” as “We will understand,” then Bnei Yisrael fully affirmed their commitment to the Mitzvot before they understood the reasoning behind them. Only after they accepted the Mitzvot unconditionally did they want to understand the Mitzvot and their reasoning to strengthen their fulfillment of them. “Naaseh VeNishma” was the ultimate declaration of the distinction between divine wisdom and human wisdom. While Adam and Chavah refused to live without having equal knowledge to that of Hashem, Bnei Yisrael accepted the fact that they were humans and could not attain wisdom on the level of Hashem. At the Cheit HaEigel, Bnei Yisrael said “Ki Zeh Moshe HaIsh Asher He’elanu MeiEretz Mitzrayim Lo Yadanu Meh Hayah Lo,” “For this man, Moshe, who took us out of Egypt – we don’t know what has become of him” (Shemot 32:1). They acted on their own misunderstanding without even waiting for Hashem to respond and help. They had forgotten their commitment to “Naaseh VeNishma” that human knowledge is limited and that only Hashem has the ultimate wisdom.

Therefore, the only way to fix this problem was to give Bnei Yisrael the quintessential Chok, a Mitzvah that has no human understanding. In this way, they recognized the limitation of human intellect. Thus, the Parah Adumah must first be a Chok before one can delve into understanding its hidden meanings and reasoning. In a similar vain, hopefully we can first and foremost accept all of the Miztvot because Hashem commanded us to. Only after we are strongly committed to them can we try to understand them to strengthen our relationship with Hashem.   

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