Parashat Hukat- Unconditional Commitment
Weekly Parasha Insights by Rabbi Eli Mansour
The Torah in Parashat Hukat present the law of Para Aduma – the "red heifer" whose ashes were used to prepare the purifying waters, through which people and objects would be purified after becoming Tameh (impure). In introducing this Misva, the Torah proclaims, "Zot Hukat Ha’Torah" – "this is the statute of the Torah." The Misva of Para Aduma is the quintessential "Hok" – law whose reason cannot be understood by the human mind. Our Sages teach that even King Shlomo, the wisest man who ever lived, was unable to determine the reason behind this law, whereby the ashes of a red cow bring purity to somebody who had become impure. Interestingly, the Torah refers to this Misva as "Hukat Ha’Torah" – the "statute" of the entire Torah. What this might mean is that the "Hok" of Para Aduma reveals that ultimately, all the Misvot are, in a sense, a "Hok," a law whose reasoning eludes human comprehension. Although reasons have been given for many of the Misvot, ultimately, we accept them irrespective of their reasons. The Hebrew word for "reason" is "Ta’am" – which also means "taste" or "flavor." The reasons given for the Misvot add "flavor" to the Misvot, making them more enjoyable, more meaningful and more fulfilling, but they are not the essence of the Misvot. Just as a person cannot subsist on salt and pepper, we cannot spiritually "subsist" if our Misva performance is rooted solely in our understanding of the reasons. For example, if we observe Misvot only because of our understanding of their reasons, we’ll end up driving to the synagogue on Shabbat – after all, Shabbat is a day of rest, and driving is far more relaxing and comfortable than walking. We’ll also end up turning on lights on Shabbat, assuming that kindling a flame was forbidden only when this entailed hard work and effort, but not when we just need to flip a switch. The reasons given for the Misvot are just the "flavor," the "seasoning," to make the experience of Misva performance more fulfilling. But ultimately, we observe them because G-d commanded us to, and this is itself enough of a reason. I often tell Bar-Misva boys that the Tefillin Shel Yad is placed upon the arm before the Tefillin Shel Rosh is placed on the head to convey this message – that we must commit to perform the Misvot before we try to understand them. The arm represents action, and the head represents thought and understanding. We place the Tefillin on our arms first to show that we commit to perform the Misvot unconditionally, even before we try to understand them with our minds. Just as Beneh Yisrael proclaimed, "Na’aseh Ve’nishma" – "We will do and we will hear" (Shemot 24:7), committing to perform the Misvot before they even heard what is entailed, we, too, must make an unconditional commitment, irrespective of our ability to understand the reason behind the Misvot. And thus the law of Para Aduma is the "Hukat Ha’Torah" – a Misva which is representative of the entire Torah. Just as this Misva is binding even though we cannot understand its reason, we must accept each and every Misva as unconditionally binding, regardless of its reason. This might explain why this Misva is presented immediately after Parashat Korah, which tells the story of Korah’s uprising against Moshe. The Midrash, as Rashi cites, tells that Korah challenged Moshe by presenting him with a garment made entirely of wool dyed in Techelet, the special blue dye with which one of the Sisit strings is to be dyed. The purpose of this blue thread of Sisit is to make us mindful of the heavens, thereby reminding us of our obligations to Hashem. Korah took a garment dyed entirely in Techelet, and asked whether such a garment requires Sisit strings. Moshe replied that it does, just as any other garment requires Sisit. Korah then mocked Moshe, arguing that if one blue thread on each edge of a garment suffices to remind a person of the Misvot, then certainly a garment dyed entirely blue should suffice, without requiring strings. Korah decided that he can decide Torah law based on the reasons of the Misvot, that he can determine whether a Misva does or does not apply based on his logic. He did not accept the message of "Hukat Ha’Torah," that we must accept all the Torah’s laws unconditionally, irrespective of their rationale. And for this reason, perhaps, these two Parashiyot are juxtaposed. The response to the tragic story of Korah is Parashat Hukat – our unconditional commitment to each and every law of the Torah, even as we add "flavor" by trying to understand their underlying rationale.