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The Systems of the Jewish Year

Rules and Reasons - Understanding The “Chok”

By Rabbi Sender Haber

A Chok is a Mitzvah without any apparent reason. Some Mitzvos, like kindness, Tzadaka, and not killing are commandments that could have emerged in any thinking society. Other mitzvos, like Shofar and Lulav, are Mitzvos that we do just because Hashem told us to do them.

I would like to suggest that the difference between Chukim and Mishpatim are not as clear cut as one would think. It seems that most Mitzvos contain elements of both Chok and Mishpat – apparent reasons and non-apparent reasons.

The Rambam writes that the Mitzva to blow Shofar is a Chok. It is a rule without an apparent reason. We blow the shofar because Hashem told us to. Still, the Rambam writes that there is an important message in the Shofar: It is a wakeup call, telling us to do teshuva.

The Rambam seems to be saying that there are two levels to every Mitzva: There is the Chok – the fact that we do it just because Hashem said so and then there is the reason that we can relate to, that talks to us, and that we can comprehend.

The Seforno writes that this concept is clear in Tehillim. King David writes: “Blow a Shofar in the new year …. for it is a chok for the Jewish people; and a Mishpat of Hashem”. It is beyond our comprehension and meaningful all at once

Listening to ones parents is another example. It is also called a Chok and a Mishpat: “Sham sam lo Chok U’mishpat”. Usually listening to our parents makes logical sense: we owe them and they are older and wiser than us. Other times, we just shrug our shoulders in bewilderment and listen anyway. In this way, honoring parents is both a chok and a mishpat: logical, but not totally within our comprehension.

Parshas Parah, teaches about a pure chok. The laws of Red Heifer, more than any other mitzvah, defy any level of comprehension. 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 need to go to the mikva. Nobody understands how this works. It is a Chok.

The Beis Halevi explains that the role of Parah Adumah is to remind us that every mitzvah has depth. We don’t understand the full depth of any Mitzvah. Still, the Beis Halevi writes, we are obligated to do our best to make the mitzvah meaningful for ourselves.

King Solomon tried to understand the Parah Adumah, “I tried to understand”, he said, “but it was out of my grasp”. We need to work to understand the Mitzvos and make them meaningful, even as we realize that they contain a depth beyond our comprehension.

The Piasetzna Rebbe asks how it is possible for people to study Torah and net be perfect. He was writing for teenage boys and he acknowledged that Torah and Mitzvos don’t always achieve the desired results. We get on a high and act holy for a while, but we also come down and revert back to our old nature. Aren’t the Torah and Mitzvos supposed to make us better and holier people?

The Rebbe explains, based on the Zohar: “The Torah is a garment. Anyone who admires the beauty of a garment but believes that there is nothing within the garment is missing the point.” A person could study clothes all day and learn a lot of important things, but he will not have even begun to comprehend the essence of the person in those clothes.

We can do the Mitzvos properly and perfectly, but if we do not look beyond the rules and into the inner meaning. They will not have the desired effect. It is true that we can’t possibly understand the full depth of all of the Mitzvos and that some Mitzvos, like Parah Adumah, are completely beyond our grasp. Still, we need to try to look beyond the surface and understand what it is that we are doing.

Several years ago, one of my brothers was rushed to the hospital in Israel. They were travelling down Kvish Echad with the sirens blaring, yet some cars refused to move out of the way. The driver explained to my father that everyone had a reason why they weren’t moving. Some were Palestinians who were unconcerned about a Jewish ambulance, others could tell from the way they were driving that this was not a terrible emergency, others knew that even if they moved to the side the ambulance would still be stuck in the traffic up ahead.

As I imagine the scene, I can’t help but think, “just stop making calculations and move over to the side –my brother is in there!”

The truth is, though, that not thinking isn’t a great approach either. A person could move aside dozens of times and never once think about the person inside of the ambulance. That person will have missed an important opportunity to grow. When we hear an ambulance, we should take a minute to think. We can move to the side, we can say a chapter of Tehillim, and we can thank Hashem that you are safe and that if we were injured they would be available to help us. By thinking about what we are doing we can become better people. 

This needs to be our approach to every Mitzvah. We do it because Hashem said so and because that is His will, but that shouldn’t stop us from thinking into the mitzvah, trying to understand it, and doing our best to grow as people.

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