Last Updated on October 25, 2021
Weekly Torah Portion – Parshat Hashavua – Chukat
By: Rabbi Nissim Mordechai Makor
This is the statute of the Torah…and they shall take to you a perfectly red cow. (19:20)
The parsha that addresses the concept of chukim employs the halachos, laws, of the Parah Adumah, Red Cow, as its standard. Jewish religious thought divides Divine commandments into two categories: “rational” laws, known as mishpatim; and “edicts” or chukim. Making a related distinction, Rabbeinu Saadya Gaon speaks of mitzvos sichliyos, those commandments required by reason, and mitzvos shimiyos, commandments mandated by Revelation. In truth, as the Sefas Emes explains, the overriding approach to mitzvah observance should be in the perspective of chukkim, whereby one observes all commandments simply because they constitute an expression of Hashem’s will.
The Piaseczner Rebbe, zl, follows in the path of the Sefas Emes in his tendency to minimize the distinction between mishpatim and chukim. He contends that the notion of mishpatim is based upon the existence of an autonomous human intellect, which is capable of moral reasoning. The Rebbe writes at a time when the Nazi atrocities against the Jews in particular, and humanity in general, were raising the question the legitimacy of relying on intellectual cognition. One’s intellect is bound by his essential character. In other words, an individual’s understanding is a function of his essential personality. This is true especially with respect to such prohibitions as robbery and murder, which have always been considered to be rational mitzvos. In the category of mishpatim, we see that certain nations have rendered rationales permitting — and even advocating — murder and plunder of those whom they consider to be lesser beings.
One’s approach to mitzvos should be based upon pure faith. The Jew’s faith comes from the spirit of holiness within him. His faith grants him access to reach higher than what he could grasp through his mind. When one experiences the pressure of pain and anguish, the multitude of sufferings can cause his faith to waver – if he is not strong. The function of a Jew is to abrogate his autonomous critical rationality with a total surrender of his being, thereby enabling him to withstand the questions to his faith which emanate from his suffering.
The Piaseczner Rebbe emphasized this idea in a homily delivered on Shabbos Parashas Parah 1942, when the chapter of the Parah Adumah was read. Rashi explains the word chukah to be the result of our response to the Satan and the nations of the world who taunt us, asking, “What is this command? What is the reason?” Hashem responds, “It is My decree; emanating from Me; you have no right to question it!” The Rebbe posits that the purification effected by the Red Cow, and the prohibition against questioning the reason for the commandment, are not two independent matters. Rather, the prohibition of questioning is in itself a component of the purification.
At the end of the Talmud Yoma 85b, Rabbi Akiva posits “Just as a mikveh,purifies the unclean, so does Hashem purify Klal Yisrael.” A mikveh effects purification only as long as one’s entire body is immersed in it. If even one tiny limb remains outside, the purification is not valid. Likewise, we must subject ourselves totally to Hashem, entering into His domain with our entire beings. Whoever views himself as a distinct being, with his own mind and thought processes, remains outside of Hashem. We must abrogate ourselves, acknowledging that we are naught and our minds are naught. Hashem and His holiness are everything. However He conducts the affairs of the world and whatever He commands is good and we have no right to question.
This is why the term chukah is applied to the Parah Adumah, implying that here, too, one may not question. Rather, we are to believe that since Hashem made things happen in this manner, then this is the way it is supposed to be. In this way, the Red Cow purifies, since we enter with our whole being, without question, surrendering ourselves to Him. The paradoxical nature of the chukim, commandments and the abstruse nature of Hashem’s actions in the world are profoundly related: both require a surrender of autonomous reason and an absolute and total submission to the Divine will. Accepting chukim is tantamount to submerging one’s mind in the purifying waters of the Divine being.
Because you did not believe in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the Bnei Yisrael. (20:12)
Rashi explains that Hashem’s complaint against them stemmed from the fact that had they spoken to the rock it would have brought forth water, Hashem’s Name would have been sanctified. Klal Yisrael would have said, “Now, if this rock, which neither speaks nor hears and does not need subsistence, fulfills the word of Hashem, how much more so should we fulfill His word.” While this may be true, the words expressed in the Torah in criticizing them, “because you did not believe in Me,” are, at best, enigmatic. Moshe Rabbeinu was the greatest believer. Aharon accepted Hashem’s Divine decree against his sons with utmost faith. To say that they did not believe is a rather strong condemnation. Furthermore, how does speaking to the rock instead of hitting it, constitute a greater source of Kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of Hashem’s Name? In any event, they both defy the laws of nature. What more is there to consider?
Horav Zaidel Epstein, Shlita, offers a profound exegesis, distinguishing between the two. Speaking to the rock, thus causing water to emerge from the rock, is considered a ratzon, a willing act, while causing water to run as a result of hitting the rock is an act of hechrech, compulsion, force. Both acts teach the importance of listening to the dvar Hashem, word of G-d. If we derive only that one must listen to Hashem when he is compelled, under duress, the lesson is not as compelling as learning the importance of listening to Hashem willingly. Failure to teach the complete lesson is reason enough to prevent Moshe from entering Eretz Yisrael.
We see from here the depth of din, justice, which Hashem is demanding of the righteous. For any other person, hitting the rock in order to cause water to run constitutes a sanctification of Hashem’s Name. For Moshe, it could have been a greater, more penetrating lesson – and it was not. It is a chillul Hashem for which he must answer.
Moreover, we learn from this incident that a person is judged commensurate with his abilities. Even if a person has done much, if he could have done more – or better – then what he has done is not enough. Imagine, says Horav Epstein, two great Roshei Yeshiva, Torah disseminators of the highest degree, who have each successfully prepared a generation of students in Torah scholarship. If one has been granted greater talent and superior abilities to the other, however, it is quite possible that he will be taken to task for not doing more. Success is measured by what one has accomplished relative to what he could have achieved.
And the Egyptians did evil to us and to our Forefathers. (20:15)
Rashi says that from here we see that the Avos, Patriarchs, feel pain in the grave when Klal Yisrael is punished. Rashi adds the word “b’kever,” in the grave, which is enigmatic. The neshamah, soul, of the departed is not really in the grave. Its place is in the Heavens. Why does Rashi seem to emphasize the pain sustained by the souls in the grave? In his commentary, Eish Kodesh, the Piaseczner Rebbe, zl, posits that Rashi focuses on the souls in the grave by design. He is teaching us that the Avos, whose bodies lie in the ground, are pained by the anguish that their progeny are experiencing. These neshamos understand that the exalted spiritual plateau which they achieved was only a result of their physical dimension, their corporeal bodies which existed in this world. The Rebbe adds that while these neshamos study Torah in the Mesivta d’Rekia, Heavenly Academy, their lips in the ground are simultaneously uttering words of Torah. It is the fulfillment of mitzvos in this world that catalyzes the soul’s holiness in Olam Habah, Eternal world. Consequently, their bodies in the ground feel pain when the living feel pain.
This is the reason that it is beneficial for the soul of the departed that – in addition to the recitation of Kaddish and the study of Mishnayos – one should remember the neshamos during the times that he is actually engaged in mitzvah performance and Torah study. Furthermore, the Rebbe explains that this means not just remembering them, but binding ourselves to them, soul to soul, in order to study Torah or perform a mitzvah together. When we connect with them, they become invested with a body in this olam hoassiyah, world of action. That Torah study or mitzvah performance grants them the opportunity for increased and intensified sanctity.
The souls of the departed yearn to be with the living, yearn to do mitzvos with the living, yearn to participate in the physical act of mitzvah performance. Not only can the living commune with the departed, they can actually give them the most precious gift of all: the opportunity to once again be invested in the concrete act of mitzvah performance. With these words the Rebbe, who was the spiritual leader and inspiration of the Warsaw Ghetto, attempted to console his bereaved chassidim. He wanted to share the idea that they could commune with the spirits of their departed loved ones, bestowing upon them the gift of physical-being in mitzvah performance.
In a drashah, lecture, on Rosh Chodesh Nissan in 1942 the Rebbe said, “Our departed ancestors are pained by our physical pain. Do not think that since they are tzaddikim, pious and righteous – especially now that they have departed this physical realm – do not think that they are above any contact with the physical. While, indeed, they are in Heaven above, they are acutely aware that it was by means of their physical bodies that they were able to achieve their level of sublime attainment. While it is true that their souls are studying Torah in Gan Eden in the Yeshiva Shel Maalah, Heavenly Academy, it is also true that their lips whisper words of Torah in the grave, catalyzed by the Torah study of Jews who are alive and well in this corporeal world.”
It is not enough to say that our souls will be saved, our spirits will live on in Heaven. Our bodies also have an element of holiness, and therefore, our corporeal existence demands salvation. This enlightening idea lends an entirely new perspective to our relationship with those who have passed on. It also places upon us an awesome responsibility with respect to the way we act in our mitzvah performance.
About this the poets would say: “come to cheshbon” (21:27)
Chazal define this pasuk homiletically, saying, “Come let the rulers who are in control of their evil-inclination make a cheshbon, reckoning, of their spiritual activity. Let us keep in mind the benefit of a mitzvah as compared to the loss incurred by a sin.” Horav Yehoshua Heshel, zl, m’Aftah said in reference to himself, “When I was young, I thought I could rule over my province, my city – but I was not successful. I attempted then to govern over my immediate family – also, to not avail. Afterwards, I made up my mind to control myself, to rule over my life. As I started to succeed in this endeavor, I came to realize that it is only he who rules over himself that can succeed in governing and directing the lives of others.”
One must make a cheshbon ha’nefesh, to have spiritual accountability towards himself. While many attempt to do this, they often fail because, in their weakness, they lie to themselves, as illustrated by the following story. When he was a young man, the Kotzker Rebbe, zl, went by foot to visit his rebbe, Horav Simcha Bunim, zl, m’Peshischa. Along the way, he came upon an old friend of his youth who, regrettably, had left the fold and become an apostate. His friend invited the Kotzker to join him in his impressive carriage. The Rebbe accepted, and they continued together along the way. Suddenly, the Kotzker turned to his friend and asked, “Where is your olam hazeh, the benefits of this world?” His friend smiled and said, “Reb Mendel, olam hazeh! I have so much: fields, horses, homes; my material wealth is extensive. Indeed, I live like the czar.” The Kotzker looked at his friend with penetrating eyes and said, “You are mistaken. This is your olam habah! I am asking you about your olam hazeh.”
The Rebbe’s words pierced through the years of indifference and ambiguity. The message was driven home. For some of us, life may present itself as a wonderful material experience. We have to realize that when we enjoy what we perceive as olam hazeh, which many of us feel we are entitled to enjoy, in reality, we are trading our place in Olam Habah, the eternal world of truth, for a box seat in this ephemeral world. All of this is the result of a lack of self-accounting.
Yet, we must be aware that this world is here for a purpose: in order to gain access to Olam Habah. To gain entry to the spiritual paradise that awaits us all, one must prepare himself in this world, as noted from the following exchange. It was a dark and cold wintry night, the only light was from the snow that was falling with intensity. A Jewish businessman, regrettably an unsuccessful one, was trudging along from one town to the other in his attempt to make the few kopeks that would sustain his family. He entered the town of Koznitz, seeking a place to rest his weary body. The town was fast asleep. No lights were on except in one home, where a candle was always burning late into the night so that its inhabitant, the Koznitzer Maggid, zl, could learn into the wee hours of the morning.
The weary traveler, a Koznitzer chassid, quietly knocked on his Rebbe’s door. When the Rebbe came to answer the door he hardly recognized his chassid, as he was covered with snow from head to toe. After he came into the house and the snow covering him had melted, the Rebbe recognized his chassid, who now began to bemoan his fate. “Rebbe, I have no olam hazeh; I have no life. I move from place to place in search of a livelihood. I am preoccupied with nothing, pursued and hounded by creditors, with no way of paying what I owe. I borrow from one to pay another. This is no life. At least, if I knew that I would merit Olam Habah.”
The Maggid looked at his broken-hearted chassid and said, “If the olam hazeh, for which you say you work so hard eludes you, how can you expect to gain a foothold in Olam Habah, if you exert no effort to gain access to it?”
Some individuals do reckon the mitzvah performed in their lives. They calculate the value of mitzvah performance and conjure up entire cheshbonos, accountings, of their future accomplishments and their spiritual worth, but neglect to go beyond the calculations. The Tzanzer Rav, zl, was wont to tell the following story to illustrate this common failing. A certain woman had a vivid imagination. Once, she had an egg in her hand and reckoned its incredible long-term value to her. From this one egg, she would have a chick which would become a hen that would lay another twenty eggs. Each egg would produce another hen. The twenty hens would lay four hundred eggs which would result in four hundred hens. These hens would produce eight thousand eggs/hens. Indeed, with this single egg she had the potential, over time, to become very wealthy.
As she continued with her high level calculations, suddenly something occurred that shattered her dreams of wealth: the egg fell from her hand and broke. Nothing was left for her but her calculations, which were now worthless.
This is the story of life: we make grandiose plans; we make cheshbonos; we talk about the many spiritual endeavors we will undertake to perform, the people we want to help and it all ends up as talk. Regrettably, by the time we decide to act, life has passed by, and the egg has broken.
As taught by Rabbi A. Leib Scheinbaum