The Temple Institute: Temple Talk: Tammuz 4, 5767/ June 20, 2007

Chukat haTorah - The ordinance of the Torah

"And HaShem spoke unto Moses and unto Aaron, saying: This is the ordinance of the Torah which HaShem has commanded, saying: Speak unto the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer, faultless, without blemish, and upon which was never laid a yoke."
(Numbers 19:1-2)

"Why is the ordinance of the red heifer referred to by Torah as the ordinance of the Torah (Chukat haTorah)? Why isn't it simply referred to as the ordinance of impurity or the ordinance of purity, just as Torah makes mention of the ordinance of Passover (Exodus 12:43)?" This is the question that the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh - the Holy Light of Life, the eighteenth century commentator asks. Why, indeed? And why do we first read about this ordinance here in the book of Numbers, when our sages teach us that it was first presented to the children of Israel in Marah, prior to the receiving of Torah at Mount Sinai?

A chok - ordinance - of Torah is a commandment that has no basis nor explanation to be found in human reason or logic. No amount of intellectual effort can come up with a logical reason why the ashes of the red heifer, along with the hyssop, scarlet wool and water from the Shiloach spring can render a man who is tamei met, (ritually impure through contact with a dead body), tahor - pure. Nor can the most analytical mind grasp why these very same elements will render impure the priest who is officiating over the purification ceremony. King Solomon, the wisest of men, alludes to this in the book of Kohelet (Ecclesiastes): "I said, 'I will become wise, but it is far from me'" (Ecc. 7:23).

By referring to the ordinance of the red heifer as the ordinance of the Torah what is the Torah trying to convey? Is it possible that Torah rejects the human intellect as a vessel to be used as a means for approaching the Divine? Would G-d place in our trust the holy Torah and then place limitations on our efforts to understand His word, so as to better perform His commandments?

On the contrary. Our intellectual efforts are necessary for the appreciation and implementation of G-d's commandments, but our intellect will only fail and eventually deceive us if we believe that the will of G-d is ultimately comprehensible. Logically speaking, how could it be otherwise? How could we, limited beings that we are, possibly grasp the infinite? Only by accepting the chok as it is can we liberate our minds to the wonders of G-d's creation and to the limitless depth of G-d's Torah. The ordinance of the red heifer exemplifies this challenge to our own ego-driven intellects more so than any other ordinance, and is therefore referred to by the book of Numbers as the ordinance of the Torah.

The acceptance of Torah as being something outside of ourselves is implicit in our accepting it as a way of life. This is what the children of Israel expressed when they said: "All that G-d has spoken, we shall act upon [the commandments first] and listen [try to comprehend them to the best of our abilities second]." (Exodus 24:7) The poet Robert Browning put it very beautifully: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

This notion of acknowledging our own intellectual limitations may grate modern sensibilities, as western society teaches us to be egocentric beings. In this respect Korach was a modern man. He believed that Torah was there to serve him and his needs, and therefore he granted himself free reign to manipulate and interpret the commandments to his advantage. It is to highlight this fatal flaw in his character that the Torah introduces the ordinance of the red heifer immediately upon the conclusion of the Korach rebellion.

The modern world errs in believing that it can separate morality from its Divine source and blithely tweak concepts of right and wrong, and good and evil, in order to render society's mores more convenient, or aesthetic, or self serving. Only by clinging to Chukat haTorah - the intellectually ungraspable ordinance of Torah - can we remain true children of the one G-d and walk in His path in accordance with His will.

Tune in to this week's TEMPLE TALK, as Yitzchak Reuven and Rabbi Richman discuss the Torah readings of Korach and Chuckat, and explores the light they shed on current events.

Click to hear:

Part 1
Part 2