Our Mitzvot are anything but simple. There are some commandments that we perform at a very specific time, such as the command to honor Shabbat. There are some that we observe in a specific place - there are rules and prohibitions regarding ones actions in a cemetary, for example. Our system of laws proscribe certain behaviors toward our fellow neighbors, friends and loved ones. There are emotional commandments, practical ones, theological laws, and mundane routines. All are encompassed in our 613 Mitzvot.
And some of them do not make sense.
Let's talk about the law of shatnez for a moment. Shatnez is the prohibition of wearing any combination of wool and linen at the same time. It's a commandment in the Torah. It may seem like a minor, unimportant rule, but many rabbinic commentators would say that shatnez is no less important than any other law in our halachic ouevre, including even the commandment Thou Shalt Not Murder.
But it doesn't seem to make sense, at least on its own terms. Sure, we can engage in some intellectual and theological gymnastics and create midrashim and explanations that may resonate with our sense of rationality and morality. But the Torah simply gives us the rule. We have the prohibition without context, without explanation. And unlike the prohibition of murder or stealing, it's much harder to justify following the commandment.
With Hebrew School students, I compare these kind of commandments to an imaginary situation in art class. Close your eyes and think back to elementary school. You walk into art class, and you see a rainbow of crayons arrayed before you. They're of all sorts of shapes and sizes. Your teacher says that you can draw anything you want, but with one proviso. You can only use the color blue. You ask the teacher Why? hoping for an explanation that warrants this artistic liability. Your teacher's reaction is, Because I said so.
Many of our 613 Mitzvot are commandments of this ilk. God commands. We do. God tells us so.
I invite us to reflect on this as we begin this week's Torah portion, Chukat. The name of the portion comes from the second verse. This is the law of the Torah which The Lord has commanded.
The Torah contains two different synonyms for Mitzvah. The first is mishpat, and the second is hok. The name of our Torah portion, Chukat, comes from this word of hok.
From your understanding of Judaism, it may surprise you that we have two words in the Torah that mean exactly the same thing. Your hesitation is warranted; our rabbinic commentators teach that each of these two words have different shades of meaning.
A mishpat and a hok are both rules, yes. But a mishpat is a logical rule. A mishpat is a rule that a thinking, moral person can understand. A hok is a Mitzvah without any logical, rational reason underlying its observance.
As I said, some things don't make sense ...
Our Torah portion continues with the famous hok concerning the mysterious Red Heifer. This is a summary of the ritual.
We are taught that if a person becomes impure by coming in contact with a corpse, the only way for he or she to become pure again is to find a pure red heifer, slaughter it and burn it, mix its ashes with water and sprinkle them over a period of seven days. After seven days, the person who is sprinkled becomes pure but the people who purified him is rendered impure. Nobody understands how this works.
Our rabbis determined that this ritual of the Red Heifer is the ultimate example of a hok, ... a mitzvah that doesn't make sense ... a law that we follow because God 'told-us-so.'
In a book of commentary, Ecclesiastes Rabbah, the following quote is attributed to King Solomon.
All these I have fully comprehended, but as regards the section dealing with the Red Heifer, I have investigated and inquired and examined and said: I will get wisdom; but it was far from me. (Eccl. VII, 23).
A central message of our Torah is that we follow its precepts and its laws. Not only the mishpatim, the laws that make sense, but the Hukim as well.
For many of us, following a prescribed ritual simply because it's written in the Torah may seem antithetical to our value system, or perhaps it seems antiquated, or perhaps it just doesn't make sense.
But I want to be clear. Just because something may not make sense right now, that does not necessarily mean that it's not worth doing. Think about the first time you lit Shabbat candles, or fasted, or came to a Shabbat service. I'm guessing that for some rituals, what was once a hok is now a mishpat.
This strange bit about the red heifer reminds us that Judaism is not always a source of instant gratification. Sometimes we have to work at it. Often, in fact, we need to work at it. Prayer, Hebrew, theology, history ... an understanding of our complex and deep religion does not happen overnight.
So yes, we have some things in our religion that may not make sense. But sometimes by pushing a little bit further, by performing a hok despite its irrationality, perhaps wisdom will be closer to us.