Red Cows, kosher laws, and mixing wool and linen, are "Chukim," laws beyond our ken. We believe that people don't like laws to which they can't relate. Yet, according to Rashi, the Torah is more concerned with those who ridicule our observance of these laws than with our own discomfort. I always suspected that we are not really bothered by the things we don't understand, and that we prefer the Chok, or, not knowing, approach to our spiritual lives!
In "Journey to Tradition," Jaroslav Pelikan shares an interesting experience he had listening to a choir of monks singing "Beatus qui tenebit et adlidet parvulos tuos ad petram." The monks were in spiritual ecstasy as they sang. Pelikan approached some of the monks after their service and asked whether they knew the meaning of the Psalm. The monks admitted they had no idea of the meaning and that they were simply moved by the,"Beatus," which seems such a beautiful word. They were shocked when the heard that they were so moved when singing, "Blessed is he who will clutch and dash your infants against the rock." They were using the Chok approach; they had no idea what they were singing.
I recently asked a group of thinkers whether they understood Isaiah 12:2, the beloved verse that begins the Havdalah ceremony that concludes the Shabbat. All assured me they did, but when pushed, couldn't explain the verse! They had a sense of the words, but no more. They hadn't carefully considered the verse. They were using the Chok approach in their service of God!
When I ask people whether they believe that lighting a memorial candle or reciting Kaddish for a deceased relative matters to the deceased's soul, they usually respond, "Never thought about it. I just do it because that's what's done." The Chok approach; willing to observe without real understanding. No wonder Rashi addresses the ridicule we bear from others rather than our own discomfort; we aren't uncomfortable with the Chok approach!
When the Torah describes the laws of the Red Cow as Chok, it says, "Zot Chukat haTorah (Numbers 19:1)," this, not other laws, is a statute! "This" is the rare occasion when we can suspend our understanding the message of a law! We should limit the Chok approach to specific laws and areas of observance. We cannot afford to observe, pray and study without a commitment to know and be engaged with our spiritual lives!
This is why Moshe hitting the rock, 'forcing' its obedience, rather than speaking to and engaging the rock, was so devastating; forced observance may have a time and place, but can never be the rule. Those who drink the Waters of Torah must do so as engaged participants. The teacher who forces the issue cannot have a role in building a functioning nation in Israel, even if he's Moshe!
The portion named "Chukat," is the portion that reminds us our general approach demands our engagement and reason. Risky? Certainly; those monks could never sing that verse again with such beautiful joy. Is it worth the risk? I couldn't live without it.
Rabbi Simcha L. Weinberg
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