Rabbi Nisan Andrews: Reflecting on poorly understood statutes

By Rabbi Nisan Andrews

(Calgary) – In the weeks leading up to Purim and Pesach, several supplementary Torah readings are added to the weekly Torah portions. Parshat Shekalim and Zachor are read before Purim, while Parah and HaChodesh are read before Pesach. Each of these additional sections is related to the respective festival it precedes.

We recently read Parshat Parah in the synagogue. It deals with the ritual of the Parah Adumah, also known as the red heifer, which is used to purify those who have come in contact with a dead body. This purification is necessary for those making pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the Pascal offering, which is timely with the upcoming Pesach holiday.

The Parah Adumah is a Torah obligation that has gained notoriety for its incomprehensibility. Its parameters appear to be so foreign to human logic and cognition that even King Solomon, the wisest of Jewish leaders, was unable to understand its nature.

We traditionally classify commandments such as these Chukot as statutes that we follow without necessarily understanding their reasoning. We list these alongside the other two classes of Torah commandments: Mishpatim and Edot. Mishpatim are social laws necessary to maintain a functioning society. Edot are commandments that remind us of important historical events or truths about the world that we can comprehend. An example of an Edot commandment is the Korban Pesach, which commemorates the Exodus from Egypt.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, z’l, Chief Rabbi Emeritus of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, questions the traditional definition of a “Chok” as a commandment that appears to have no explanation. In an unpublished sermon, he refers to the Rambam (Maimonides), who points out that according to Sefer Devarim (Deuteronomy 4:6), a Chok will inspire non-Jews with admiration for the wisdom of the Torah and its people. If these Chukkim are incomprehensible, how can the Torah say that non-Jews will admire them?

Rabbi Sacks’ response to the question does not delve into the individual commandments but rather connects them with a common thread. He explains that each commandment serves to unite the Jewish community and prevent assimilation by providing distinct cultural markers.

Consider the laws of kashrut. Nobody knows why some animals are kosher and others are not. Yet, in the 19th century, Jews in Europe were, for the first time in many centuries, able to mix on relatively equal terms with non-Jewish society. But if you wanted social advancement, you couldn’t take Lord so-and-so to dine at a five-star kosher restaurant.

There were individuals who concluded that if a command did not make sense, then it did not matter if they broke the laws. As a result, in present times, to quote Rabbi Sacks, “the descendants of those families are very Anglo, but no longer very Jewish.”

Kashrut was a unifying force that helped us preserve our Jewish identity. Every nation has its own social laws (mishpatim) and rituals to remember its history (edot), but we also have chukkim – laws that are not easily understood but have worked like magic to keep us connected to our Jewish heritage.

Our neighbours sometimes saw things more clearly than we did. There were times when we were so eager to fit in with everyone else that we lost sight of the unique qualities that set us apart. Chukkim may seem confusing when examined closely, but from a distance, they represent our wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the world.

The paradox of chukkim is that sometimes others understand what we don’t about Judaism, which can be our most significant source of resilience. Our greatest source of strength may often be what we are tempted to throw away.

As we prepare for Pesach while facing the ongoing war in Israel, we have the chance to reflect on the teachings of Pesach and redemption. This holiday has helped us maintain our unique identity and guided us to look back at our past and ahead to our future, even during the most challenging moments in our history.

Rabbi Nisan Andrews is Rabbi at the Congregation House of Jacob Mikveh Israel in Calgary.

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