The Torah’s 613 mitzvot include many commandments that the human mind and morality logically require. For example, “Thou shall not kill” and “Thou shall not steal” are necessary for the basic existence of any human society.
However, there are certain mitzvot whose reasons are unclear, and seemingly attainable. The classic example for this sort of mitzva is the one with which this week’s parsha – Chukat – opens: Para Aduma (Red Heifer).
The mitzva deals with the purification process of a man who became impure by touching or getting close to a dead body. This person is defined as tameh, impure, but the meaning of this impurity does not relate to day-to-day life, rather impacting things relating to the issue of purity, such as entering the Temple and eating from the korbanot.
By the way, this impurity is the reason why Jewish leaders and the Chief Rabbinate have forbidden entrance to the Temple Mount. This is because the Mount is a sacred site upon which the Temple sat, and we are all defined today as impure – due to being in places where are there are dead bodies or touching impurities from dead bodies, with no contemporary ability to purify ourselves using the Red Heifer.
But a man who lived when the Temple stood and became tameh due to a dead body was not forever forbidden from entering the Temple, or from eating from the sacrifices. The Torah suggests a manner of purification through a complex procedure at the center of which stood the Para Aduma, whose ashes were sprinkled on the person, thus purifying him; he was then allowed to enter the Temple and eat from the sacrifices.
This mitzva appears to lack any logical sense. Indeed, our sages noted it as such, as the commentator Rashi stated on the verse, “This is the statute (‘chukka’) of the Torah” at the beginning of our parsha: “Because Satan and the nations of the world taunt Israel, saying, ‘What is this commandment, and what purpose does it have?’ Therefore, the Torah uses the term ‘statute.’ I have decreed it; You have no right to challenge it.”
The clear mention of this commandment as a “statute” whose reason is incomprehensible has brought many to use this point of view in reference to all of the Torah’s commandments.
There are those who claimed that all the mitzvot lack logical reasons, and that their entire significance is obedience to the words of God – when His words seem logical, as well as when they seem illogical.
But many great Jewish thinkers throughout the generations, led by the Maimonides, argued strongly against this outlook – and even saw it as an offense to the honor of the Torah. Their claim was that only a few, specific mitzvot are referred to in the Torah as being defined as a “statute.” Meaning, most of the mitzvot in the Torah are comprehensible, and only for a few is the reason hidden so that man does not have the ability to comprehend them.
Understanding the mitzvot of the Torah requires work and effort. One cannot expect that when reading the Torah for the first time, it will be completely understood. On the contrary, it requires learning and study in order to grasp the significance of the different commandments.
But this approach raises a question: If in principle the mitzvot of the Torah have reasons and logic, why then are there several mitzvot like Para Aduma whose reasons are elusive? It is inconceivable that God instructed us to fulfill these mitzvot for no reason whatsoever. And why wouldn’t the Torah write the reasons for these commandments as well, and thus save us the debate of, “What is this mitzva, and what is the reason for it?” It seems that the reason for these mitzvot was hidden intentionally, for a specific purpose. A person reading the Torah who finds a mitzva that human logic would reach on its own might respond with a certain amount of disrespect for the Torah. The thought that might cross his mind would be “I could have written this myself,” or “I would have solved this problem in a different manner.”
Man might then look at the Torah as a code of laws just like any other that was created by people, which can be disputed and seen from a different perspective, or changed and adjusted for a specific situation or environment.
As a way of dealing with these thoughts, the Torah notes several mitzvot as statutes. Alongside the fact that most of the Torah’s commandments are such that it is not difficult to identify the logic which leads to them, there are specific mitzvot whose reasons are hidden so that the person reading the Torah will be able to comprehend that the totality of the commandments is not just another human creation. Even the mitzvot that contain logic are not a human code of laws, but something much beyond that – an exalted Divine creation which should be treated as such.
If all of the Torah’s commandments were incomprehensible statutes, this would also be disadvantageous. Indeed, most of the Torah’s commandments are comprehensible after profound examination. But a few are statutes intentionally, so that you may know – you the reader and the learner – that this book you are reading is not just another book like all human creations, but a holy book given by the Creator.
Behind it are deep and elusive ideas relating to the mitzvot that seem logical to you, and even more so in regard to the ones that do not.
The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.