Rabbi Michael Bernstein
Contradiction and mystery characterize the laws of the parah adumah, the red heifer (19:2), “This is the decree (chukas) of the Torah which God has commanded saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel that they take for you a completely red heifer . . .’” The Torah commands that we burn the red heifer and use its ashes to purify the ritually impure who have come into contact with corpses. Paradoxically, ritually pure people that touch the ashes become impure.
As quoted by Rashi, the Midrash states (Tanchuma 7), “The nations taunt Israel, saying ‘What is this point of this commandment?’ Therefore, it is written as a chok, a divine decree. You may not question it.” Although the Midrash discusses the parah adumah, Rashi explains (Leviticus 18:4; Yoma 67b) that the concept of chok applies to all decrees that invite derision or internal doubt. Typical examples are the prohibition against eating the flesh of the swine and the prohibition against wearing shaatnez, garments of wool and linen combined.
Apparently, according to the Midrash, chok decrees may invite the ridicule of the nations. Yet we find a totally different perspective in the Torah itself (Deuteronomy 4:5-8), “Behold, I have taught you decrees and laws, as God, my Lord, has commanded me, which you are to do within the land you are approaching to take possession of it. And you shall safeguard and perform them, for this is your wisdom and insight in the eyes of the peoples that shall hear all these decrees, who shall say, ‘This great nation is surely a wise and insightful people!’ For which great nation that has a God close to it as God, our Lord, is whenever we call out to Him? And which great nation has righteous decrees (chukim) and laws as this entire Torah that I place before you this day?” Here, the Torah states clearly that the nations will marvel at the wisdom and insight of our “righteous decrees (chukim) and laws.” How do we resolve this contradiction?
The answer may lie in the phrase “in the eyes of the peoples that shall hear all these decrees,” the emphasis being on “all,” on seeing the decrees in the context of the Torah’s totality. An outsider who focuses on an individual law, such as the prohibition against shaatnez, may find it arcane and absurd. If, however, he considers the entire scope of the Torah, with its integrated system of individual and community life that transcends the material world and engenders social harmony and a close relationship with God, he would find its wisdom and insight compelling.
The encounter between Pharaoh and Joseph provides an indication that the qualities of wisdom and insight only emerge when an approach is all encompassing. After Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dreams without hesitation, Joseph offers an unsolicited comprehensive solution to the problems Pharaoh’s dreams foretold. Pharaoh responds by immediately selecting Joseph for the job, stating (Genesis 41:39), “There is no wise and insightful man like you.” Pharaoh uses the exact same words chacham v’navon Moses does to describe the Jewish people who follow all the Torah’s precepts.
These resonant words connect these two passages and bring two thoughts to mind. Pharaoh did not consider Joseph wise and insightful because of his observance of the Torah’s statutes. Even today, when so many Jews have unfortunately lost their ties to their ancient moorings, they are still considered wise and insightful people. This manifest characteristic may trace back to our cultural inheritance from Abraham to be seekers of total truth.
Furthermore, Jewish observance in its totality offers us the perfect path to internal and external harmony. A partial measure of the Torah’s success in its effects upon us is reflected in the observant community’s significantly lower rates of divorce, crime, drugs, school dropouts and other social ills. Historically, it has also been true that other nations and cultures have found the vibrant Jewish community life attractive. Clearly, the observance of the Torah’s laws in their totality (kal) make us wise and insightful.
Although the Midrash states we have no right to question the decrees (chukim) or search for their rationale, many commentators, Rashi included, do offer various explanations for them. How do we explain this?
Apparently, we must draw a distinction between ascertaining God’s ultimate purpose in issuing the decrees and reaping benefits from their study. It is impossible to penetrate the infinite and inscrutable divine wisdom behind His decrees, just as it is impossible to know God who is one with His knowledge. We are obliged to desist from such speculation in humble recognition of our limitations as finite creatures. Nonetheless, we may derive profound concepts and insights from the study of these decrees, and we may ascertain some of the benefits in the observance of God’s law. These are what the commentators seek to discover.
In this light, we can perhaps discern another teaching in the seemingly contradictory law that the parah adumah purifies the impure and contaminates the pure. The contradiction of this law mirrors the paradox of the relationship between our physical and spiritual sides; its very perplexity challenges our tendency to see the physical as the final reality.