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Parshat Chukat

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah

1. The Limits of Human Understanding
2. Pursuing Peace Wisely
3. A Jewish Jew

The Limits of Human Understanding

The gentiles…single out the Mitzvah of the פרה אדומה Red Heifer פרה אדומה to scoff at. They ask the Jews: “What is this mitzvah and what is the meaning behind it?” It is therefore called a חק , a law that has no obvious or natural explanation – a decree that you do not have permission to question. (Rashi citing the Midrash)

This week’s parashah specifically labels the law of the Red Heifer as a chok (Divine decree), but there are other laws that also fit in this same category, such as שילוח הקן (sending away the mother bird) andכלאיים (not wearing shaatnez, a blend of wool and linen). But the truth is that all mitzvot are ultimately chukim (Divine decrees) as well. Consider, for example, the mitzvot of eating Matzah and Maror on Passover, which are generally not thought of as unfathomable Divine decrees, but rather as mitzvot that we perform in order to remember our liberation from Egyptian slavery and the Exodus. If, however, we look more closely at the way the Torah presents the mitzvah, we will see that this perception is less than accurate: בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים (שמות יג :ח). The words actually communicate that the reason HaShem redeemed us from Egypt was in order that we would eat Matzah and Maror! Only to fulfill these mitzvah were we redeemed! Clearly, the “reason” for Matzah and Maror is not merely to remind us of the Exodus.

And so it is with all the Mitzvot. The reasons given for the Commandments are mainly to satisfy our minds, but are not necessarily the ultimate rationale for the Commandments. We can see this clearly regarding many other mitzvot as well. The mitzvah that a child must obey and respect his parents is seemingly a comprehensible concept of appreciation. However, G-d did not need to create a system where human reproduction occurs through the union of male and female, as with the other creatures. It is more correct to say that G-d “created” parents and parenting in order to facilitate the mitzvah of respecting and honoring parents. The list goes on and on.

Even when we do the mitzvot that appeal to our reason, we must fulfill these Commandments for the sake of obeying G-d’s will, not because they appeal to us and make sense to us. If we do not approach the mitzvot this way, the greatest calamity can occur – as happened to King Solomon. The wisest of men erred when he based his conduct on the Torah’s explanation of the prohibition against a king marrying many wives. The Torah says that many wives could sway the king’s heart from doing the will of G-d. King Solomon mistakenly believed that he could rely on his great wisdom to prevent this from happening to him.

Even when the reason seems obvious to us, we must comply with G-d’s Commandments because “He commanded us.” This explains the seemingly bewildering fact that the only time the Torah tells us חזק” ” (Be strong!) with regard to obeying prohibitions is in connection with the prohibition against consuming blood. Even though consuming blood is repulsive, G-d found it appropriate to say: רק חזק לבלתי לאכול את הדם – Be strong and do not eat blood (Devarim 12:23). The point here is that the mitzvot of the Torah are not to be done out of our understanding alone, but rather out of a willingness to fulfill G-d’s decree. It turns out, then, that strengthening ourselves (“Be strong!”) is necessary to enable us to refrain from eating blood for the sake of adhering to G-d’s commandments, and not because it is repulsive. Hence, Rabbi Elazar Ben Azarya teaches that a person should not say that he does not eat pork because he dislikes the taste, nor that he does not wear shaatnez because he dislikes the way it feels. Rather he should say: “I greatly desire eating pig,” or “I greatly desire the softness that only shaatnez can offer,” but I refrain because G-d said “No!”. (ילקוט שמעוני קדושים רמז תרכו)

This approach of accepting the mitzvot as reflecting G-d’s ultimate “understanding” rather than our own must be applied in the realm of Jewish medical ethics as well. To take one well-known example: Although a patient is suffering tremendously, we are commanded not to “pull the cord.” A gentile doctor might not perceive euthanasia or early-stage abortion as murder, but our Torah does.

Parental Decrees
We can draw an analogy between G-d’s approach to us and the approach parents must often take towards their children. When a younger child asks his parents to explain a certain decision, or even a certain cherished value, they may choose to respond simply: “This is the way things are supposed to be.” The child’s request for an explanation may concern anything from the type of clothing we wear to how wrong we perceive cigarette smoking to what type of shul we pray in. The parents’ unwillingness to give an explanation or full account of their considerations often has nothing to do with “closed-mindedness,” but rather with their conviction that the child is too young or immature to understand or appreciate the issues at hand. Of course they would like their children to know all about whatever they are interested in, but parents realize that some things are better left unsaid to a child, and not openly dealt with.

Our Father in Heaven has a similar way of dealing with His children. Many things that we do not know and cannot understand at this moment might later become clear to us, if we have patience, when the time is ripe. Sometimes that time is only in Olam Haba (the World-to-Come). Until then, it might not even be beneficial for us to know the “explanations.”

Facing Tragedy with Faith
This concept is particularly important when we are confronted with tragedy. Some people’s first reaction upon hearing tragic news (or talking with mourners at a shiva) is: “Why did it happen?” They may even attempt explanations of the Holocaust. But the fact is that the way G-d runs His world will sometimes seem to us to be a חק similar to the Mitzvah of the Red Heifer – a “decree” that we are unable to understand. Just as in the realm of physics, scientists cannot explain why fire burns and heat rises, we cannot explain the ways of G-d. We would do better to stand back and say with King Solomon: אמרתי אחכמה והיא רחוקה ממני (I tried to achieve greater wisdom, but it is beyond my grasp).

So many people cannot come to terms with their lives after tragedies because they want to understand “why.” Human beings find it difficult to relinquish the belief that man has to understand everything. Understanding the reason and purpose behind occurrences provide a sense of pleasure. But a servant of G-d can feel pleasure and a sense of accomplishment by carrying out G-d’s will even though he does not understand because this proves his dedication to his Master. Our responsibility as servants of G-d is carry out His will even through the dark periods in our lives without asking “Why?” Of course there are answers to every question, but not always can we understand them. Faith (emunah) starts where our understanding ends.

I found the following Ben Ish uniquely insightful and relevant to this subject. The Talmud (Kidushin 39b) states that in this world there is no room for reward of doing a mitzah and we receive the true reward in the World to Come. The Ben Ish Chai asks on this the following interesting question .We know that G-d keeps the whole Torah. One of the Mitzvoth of the Torah is ביומו תתן שכרו one must pay a worker the same day that the worker finishes the job. If so, why does g-d wait to give the righteous their reward only in the next world and not in this world which is seemingly the same day of having the job finished?

The answer given is that this law that one should pay his worker the same day the job is done only applies when he was hired to do the job by the recipient of service himself and not through his messenger. Since the Torah was given through Moshe as messenger of g-d to the Jews He is not required to hand over payment before “dawn”. However, says the Ben Ish Chai, that concerning the mitzvah of faith and not questioning G-d, G-d is required by the Torah to pay us in this world. The first two of the Ten Commandments were given directly from G-d to the Nation without involvement of Moshe – אנכי ה’ אלקיך I am Hashem your G-d and לא יהיה לך אלקים אחרים על פני you shall not have other g-ds . For the mitzvah of faith – for not asking why – for that there is reward in this world as well. It can only be so ironic that the one who is asking the question is the one who might never know “why”.

Pursuing Peace Wisely

ויבכו את אהרון שלושים יום כל בית ישראל -במדבר כ:כ”ט
The Jewish People cried for Aharon for thirty days. (BeMidbar 20:29)

As Rashi notes, the wordכל (all) tells us that everyone wept for Aharon – women as well as men. Aharon was eulogized as anאוהב שלום ורודף שלום” ” (a lover of peace and one who pursued peace) because he would constantly make peace between rivals and between husband and wife.

Hillel’s famous teaching was inspired by Aharon’s example. Be a disciple of Aharon: love peace and pursue peace; love people and bring them close to Torah (Avot 1:12). The Bartenurah describes how Aharon would go about making peace. He would first approach one of the two feuding parties, and tell him (or her) just how much the other party wholeheartedly regrets his offensive actions and the friction this caused. He is terribly embarrassed that the matter has gotten out of hand, and thus sent me to seek your forgiveness. This same approach would be taken by Aharon in confronting the other party to the dispute. All this was done by Aharon without witnessing regret by either person. Ultimately, when the two met up with one another, they quickly made peace.

The commentators take note of the title given to Aharon: רודף שלום – pursuer of peace (see Rabbi Chaim Volozhiner’s Ruach Chaim and The Ben Ish Chai’s Ben Yehoyada on Sanhedrin 10b). The word רודף, which means pursuer or chaser, commonly has negative connotations. Indeed, this is the term the Torah uses to describe someone who is chasing another person with intent to kill or cause serious harm. How, then, could this word be applied to the efforts of the great peacemaker, Aharon?

The answer given is that in order to attain peace, one must sometimes even take a step towards siding with one party in a dispute, and only then step forward towards peace. For example, imagine that in the time of Aharon, Reuven heard that Shimon has been spreading vicious rumors about him or even plotting against him. If Aharon would try to make peace by saying that he heard Shimon express regret, and was sent by Shimon to ask Reuven’s forgiveness, this tactic might easily fail due to Reuven’s suspicions about Shimon’s true motives. Rather, Aharon would first win Shimon’s trust by “chasing peace” and almost take sides in the dispute. He would say to Reuven that if the report about Shimon’s plotting is actually true, then you should forcefully set things straight and not forgive him. Only then, after showing Reuven how important his feelings are in Aharon’s eyes, and validating them, could Aharon find some way to resolve the conflict: maybe the rumors are false, maybe there is a misunderstanding that can be dealt with and clarified by talking openly. Once Reuven’s negative feelings towards Shimon have been validated, he becomes capable of dealing with his anger and overcoming it.
The Mishnah about Aharon and his “life motto” continues:אוהב את הבריות ומקרבן לתורה (He loved people and brought them closer to Torah). Let us explore for a few moments the connection between this aspect of Ahraon’s life and his technique of validating people’s feelings and perspectives. Many people have a passion to engage in קירוב רחוקים (Jewish outreach), and offer our brethren better lives through the observance of Torah and Mitzvot. The approach to Kiruv that I have adopted and have found effective might be called “the osmosis approach.” Judaism is so beautiful that it does not need to be forced on anyone. Those who are non-religious usually have never gotten the right taste or feeling for it. People’s values are always affected by their surroundings. By building a relationship of friendship and love, even without forcing the discussion towards religious matters, we can help the non-religious pick up many things from Judasim that they can relate to on their level.

There are, of course, those who use the approach of “Join us,” or “Change to our lifestyle.” This approach is usually more effective in outlying areas where becoming religious does not mean having to leave one’s current circle of friends or social group. In big cities, however, where the non-religious often live on the same block as the religious community, they frequently cannot see themselves leaving their circle and connecting themselves with a circle they always shied away from. Aharon’s method of “playing on their court by their rules” can be effective even in a situation like this. In our terms, this involves our perceiving what Judaism could mean to our non-religious neighbors and talking about aspects of Torah they can relate to. It might even involve just inviting them for a good Shabbat meal. Just by showing care and love, and validating the good values of the irreligious neighbor, one can build a bridge to the most distant of hearts.

If we understand what Aharon was all about, we will realize that we do not need to look too hard for ignorant or alienated fellow Jews into whose lives we can bring Judaism. And if we have proper אהבת ישראל, it may even be the neighbor next door.

A Jewish Jew

וישמע הכנעני מלך ערד ישב הנגב כי בא ישראל דרך האתרים וילחם בישראל וישב ממנו שביץ (במדבר כא:א)
When the Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that the Jews were traveling on the Atarim route, he attacked them and took some captives. (BeMidbar 21:1)
Who exactly were these “Canannites” attackers? Rashi explains (following the Midrash) that they were actually Amalekites! They attacked the Jews only after changing their language to that of the Canaanites in an attempt to confuse their would-be victims. They hoped that the Jews would be fooled, and would pray that G-d deliver the Canaanites into their hands. Their prayers would then be of no value. But, fortunately, the Jews noticed that despite their enemies’ language being that of Canaan, their clothes were those of Amalek. The Jews therefore prayed that G-d redeem them from whomever they were fighting. And G-d answered their prayers.

Now, we might well ask: If the Amalekites were really trying to disguise their identity and pass as Canaanites, why didn’t they adopt Canaanite clothes as well?

The answer should make us stop and think: If the Amalekites would have adopted Canaanite clothing along with the Canaanite language, they would have lost their identity and become Canaanites themselves! Then, when the Jews would pray to G-d for victory against the Canaanites, their prayers would be effective.

The fact is that if a person changes how he speaks together with how he dresses, then his entire identity changes as well. This concept is of great importance in a number of areas, especially in parenting. A well-adjusted child must have a sense of identity, a sense of which group he belongs to. When parents are not happy with their own traditions or surrounding environment, this identity crisis will usually be passed on to their offspring as well. The child falls between the cracks, coming to feel that having no identity is better than having a double identity. Dismayed parents wonder how the child they put so much love into is still not able to find himself. But how can fruits flourish when the stem is so flimsy?

Let’s face it: The way we present ourselves to the world is not only the way we are identified by others, but also the way we come to identify ourselves. Just by looking in the mirror for a few moments, we can see what kind of self-identity we are creating. Everyday clothing affects the mindset no less than a Black Tie does at an elegant affair. This is all the more true for us Jews. If, for example, we present ourselves without a head-covering or with a gentile name, then our Jewish identity is put at a very low level on our hierarchy of values. This will adversely impact on our own Jewish identity as well as that of our children.

It is no accident that we say at the Brit Milah: “כשם שנכנס לברית כן יכנס לתורה לחופה ולמעשים טובים” – Just as he entered the covenant of the Jewish Nation with G-d, so may he merit to learn Torah, marry at the chupah, and live a life of good deeds (Shabbat 137b). Notice that the word used here is כשם rather than כמו , a more commonly used Hebrew word for just as/like. One way of explaining this is that the Jewish name given at the Brit Milah endows the child with a Jewish identity right from the start. As the boy reaches and faces future stages of life, however, it sometimes happens, unfortunately, that Mordechai becomes Max, Chaim changes to Victor, and Shmuel turns into Sam. The name change may herald – and certainly reinforces – a change in identity. For this reason, we say כשם…, not כמו…. We mean not only just as, but also: just like the name. We pray that the little Mordechai, Chaim, or Shmuel should be able to proudly keep his Jewish identity throughout all the stages of life. We pray that G-d give him the courage to face his future maintaining the identity that meant so much to his ancestors throughout Jewish history.

Shabat Shalom

In memory of Reuven ben Sarah

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