PARSHAT HUKKAT – BALAK
THE REASONS FOR THE COMMANDMENTS
“This is the ritual law that the Lord has commanded: Instruct the Israelite people to bring you a red cow without blemish, in which there is no defect and on which no yoke has been laid.” (Numbers 19:2)
Many other religious traditions are built on articles of faith (think about the Nicene Creed in Christianity.) My own tradition Judaism is built on actions known as mitzvot (commandments.) Jewish tradition teaches that there are 613 commandments. Some of those commandments we can know by thinking about the world, what the Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas called “natural law.” It is obvious that murder and stealing are wrong, while charity and honoring parents are right. Some we can understand because they serve a clear religious purpose. Resting on the Sabbath, eating matza as we tell the story of the exodus from Egypt, or fasting on Yom Kippur to seek atonement make sense.
But there are many commandments that seem to make no sense. Why should we avoid mixing wool and linen or not eat meat and milk together? The Rabbis have a name for such a commandment chok or decree. The commandment is in the Torah and we are expected to follow it, even if we do not understand it.
The classic example of such a chok is at the beginning of this portion. A person who is ritually impure by being near a dead body cannot enter the Holy Temple. They had to become ritually pure once again. This was done using a red heifer and mixing its ashes with cedar, hyssop, and crimson stuff. The mixture was then poured on the person who was ritually impure. They would become pure, but the person doing the pouring would become impure. It is a strange ritual that seems to defy logic. Nonetheless, many deeply religious Jews are searching for a red heifer today so they can reintroduce this ritual. (The television show Dig was based on this premise.)
Why this ritual? The Midrash shows as discussion between a pagan and Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai. The pagan asked if this ritual was a form of witchcraft, and the Rabbi answered yes. The pagan was satisfied with that answer and left. But then the Rabbi’s students asked, “You pushed him off with a reed. But what will you say to us?” Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai answered, “By your lives, a dead person does not make things impure and the water of the red heifer does not make things pure. Rather God said, I have decreed a decree, and you have no permission to transgress what I have decreed. This is a chok of the Torah.” (Numbers Rabbah 19)
The question of whether the commandments are arbitrary decrees from God or have a purpose has fascinated Jewish thinkers through the ages. In Hebrew we call it ta’amei hamitzvot, “the reasons for the commandments.” The first great Jewish philosopher who tried to systematize Jewish tradition, Saadia Gaon, believed that all the commandments were rational. Even ceremonial laws serve a rational purpose. Saadia gives the example of a wealthy man giving a poor man a job for his benefit. So God gave the Jewish people ritual laws to allow people to observe them and receive a reward.
The great philosopher Maimonides was also a rationalist. He believed that all the ceremonial laws of Judaism were meant to wean people away from idolatry. Even animal sacrifice was necessary because that is how the pagans worshipped God. In a perfect world animal sacrifice was not necessary, but in the world at the time such sacrifice was necessary. Perhaps Maimonides was one of the first who saw commandments as applying to a time and place.
The mystics took a different view towards the commandments. There are divine sparks hidden everywhere, and each commandment, no matter how obscure, serves to release these divine sparks and return them to God. From a mystical perspective God is broken, and each commandment helps put God together again. Many Jews say explicitly a short prayer that they are doing a commandment to reunite God.
Perhaps the answer is that even commandments we cannot understand have a purpose. They are acts of faith that connect us to God.