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Rabbi Michael Rosensweig
Rabbi Michael Rosensweig

Zot Chukat haTorah: The Role of Chukim in Torah Study and Commitment

The Torah begins parshat Chukat by declaring "Zot Chukat ha-Torah asher tzivah Hashem leimor". Instead of immediately elaborating the aforementioned chok by delving into the laws of parah adumah, the Torah pauses to indicate that Benei Yisrael should be apprised of the laws that are to follow ("daber el Benei Yisrael"). Only then does the Torah actually enumerate the laws of the parah adumah (red heifer). This brief interruption establishes the general concept of chok as an important dimension of Torah observance and study. This broader theme is then dramatically exemplified by parah adumah. Why is it important to depict the Torah as a repository of chukim?

Chukim test the purity of our commitment to Torah. Rashi cites the comment of the midrash and gemara Yoma that one is not permitted to challenge the validity of mysterious chukim ("Chukim chakakti ve-ein reshut le-harher acharai"). This is true even when the chok constitutes an apparent paradox. The mefarshim note that parah adumah is the quintessential chok because the process that purges one individual of ritual impurity also triggers another's impurity. Accepting this mystery with equanimity constitutes an impressive act of faith and commitment.

The rishonim debate the ideal approach to chukim. R. Yehudah ha-Levi (Sefer ha-Kuzari) argues that one should ideally accept the chok on faith without even attempting to fathom its purpose. This approach accentuates the importance of submission in avodat Hashem. On the other hand, the Rambam (end of Hilchos Meilah) and Ramban (Chukat and especially Devarim 22:6 regarding kan tzippor) strongly advocate that one try to penetrate the mystery of the chok.  However, this perspective, too, is actually rooted in the concept of faith and surrender. The Rambam emphasizes that the Torah often gives priority to chukim over mishpatim (laws whose logic is evident) precisely because they unambiguously reflect the Divine authority that is the foundation of the entire Torah.

In light of this perspective, the effort to fathom the chok should also be perceived as the ultimate act of intellectual-spiritual surrender and submission. The obligation to strive to comprehend the chok does not primarily reflect man's intellectual sovereignty even in the esoteric realm of the chok. It is instead a testament to man's awareness that even his intellect has to be shaped and refined by Torah commitment. Chazal identify the concept of chok with intensive Torah study when they interpret the pasuk (Vayikra 26:3) "Im Behukotai Teileichu" as a reference to total immersion in the study of Torah (shetihiyu ameilim baTorah). In Torah study, we are challenged to penetrate the inner logic of the Torah even when that requires that we set aside popular and pragmatic modes of conventional thinking. Thus, Torah study is the most powerful method of avodat Hashem.

The emphasis on the authority and inner logic of chukim is the perfect response to Korach's rebellion. Chazal explain that Korach instigated against Moshe Rabbeinu in numerous ways, some of which seem contradictory. On one level, he invoked pragmatic common sense arguments (why would one need a mezuzah for a room filled with sefarim, or string of techelet for a techelet garment…) to undermine halachic traditions as a way of undercutting halachic authority. At the same time, he questioned Moshe's capacity to independently apply his halachic instinct and understanding beyond what he had specifically received from Hashem (the decision to appoint Aharon as kohen gadol, to test with the ketoret etc.) His mantra was "kol ha-edah kulam kedoshim" based on the common experience of mattan Torah in which all of Klal Yisrael passively experienced Hashem's presence. The nation had rapidly strayed significantly from the ideological foundations encapsulated by "naaseh ve-nishmah" (See Naaseh ve-Nishma: The Cultivation of a Torah Personality)

The Torah provides a succinct but forceful and profound rebuttal of these ideologies by developing the idea of chukim as exemplified by the parah adumah.  "Zot chukat ha-Torah" demonstrates that halachic authority is not contingent upon common sense or comprehension, that authentic kedushah demands intense involvement, personal sacrifice, and true commitment, not merely passive participation, and that internalizing the unique values and inner logic of Torah is the only basis for creative contribution in halachic life.

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