By Rabbi Maury Grebenau
There are many ways to divide up the 613 commandments that are the backbone of Judaism. One could break them up by positive and negative commandments. One could distinguish between the commandments that are directed toward Hashem and the commandments that are in the realm of interpersonal relationships. One particularly interesting categorization relates to this weeks Torah portion. The Mitzva (command) of the red cow, which is the lead off topic this week, is referred to as a “Chok” as opposed to a “Mishpat.” A Mishpat is a law which seems intuitive to us. It isn’t difficult to understand why we shouldn’t kill or steal or worship other gods. A “Chok” is the exact opposite.
The entire section of the Torah which describes the process of the red cow’s ashes being a source of purification is very difficult to understand. Aside from the fact that the entire concept of purity and impurity is not an inherently logical idea the details of this section are confounding as well. King Solomon said about this Mitzva that he sought to understand the Torah but it was far from him (Koheles 7:23 with commentaries). The idea he was expressing is that regardless of the extent of ones intellect there are certain commandments which are quite opaque in terms of their rationale. The Mitzva of the red cow is the paradigm of a “Chok”. It is a command which is not inherently logical.
Our sages teach us that the command of the red cow is connected directly to the sin of the golden calf. “Let the mother come and clean up for the child.” The cow rectifies the sins of the calf (see Rashi’s comments to Bamidbar 19:22). While we understand the imagery of a mother animal cleaning up the mess left in the wake of her errant child, what exactly is the connection between the sin of the golden calf and the laws of the red cow?
One possible connection is the very idea of “Chok”. These non-logical Mitzvot are essentially a subjugation of our own intellect in the face of G-d’s will. We don’t really understand the reason behind the red cow and it may even seem antiquated or archaic to us. Since we are unable to assess the reason for the command, we may conclude that no explanation exists. Instead, we are expected to exhibit a level of trust in G-d and the divinity of the commandments. We follow the commandments, even those which are classified as “Chok” because we trust that Hashem asks of us only that which is beneficial and relevant. It is a much clearer act of faith to follow the “Chok” than the “Mishpatim” which we have an easier time following since they seem “correct” in our own life view.
The worship of the golden calf was a departure in our service of G-d. It was the very antithesis of following the word of G-d simply because it is the word of G-d. We strayed from the proper path and so we rectify our mistake with the “Chok” which emphasizes our faith in G-d and highlights our allegiance to His word regardless of our own estimations. The Sforno (a Medieval Torah commentator) points out that the reality is that the “Mishpatim”, while understandable, are not followed because of their lucidity to the human mind. He comments that the verse groups both of them together to teach us that the very same reason we follow the laws of the red cow is the same reason we don’t kill. When we refrain from murder it is not because that is proper for society or that we as individuals feel that it is morally repulsive. The reason we don’t kill is because G-d said so. Morality can only be objective if it is divine. The Torah is our objective moral code; it is the word of G-d and as such demands that we follow it. This is the lesson of the red cow which the generation of the golden calf needed to inculcate. May we have the focus to follow G-d’s command even without fully understanding it and may G-d grant us the wisdom to see the depths of His Torah.
Originally appears on YUTorah
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