Shabbat Chukat: The Unknowable

July 11, 2024 by Jeremy Rosen
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There are various words for law in the Bible.

Torah is a very general all-inclusive term. Mishpatim refers to what we call civil law. Mitzvah too is general but refers mainly to ritual laws. And then there is Chok, which is the title of this week’s reading from the Torah. It is understood by the rabbis to mean a law that has no obvious rational explanation and therefore something to be accepted as such.

This week, we read about the most famous Chok, the case of the red heifer, which, during temple times, was a crucial element in ritual purification for anybody who wanted to come into the temple or eat sanctified food.  The animal was very rare. It had to be absolutely red with not one hair of another color. It was sacrificed, its remains burned, and the ashes were gathered by a priest and used together with water for ritual purification. The irony of the ceremony was that the priest who prepared this crucial element in purification himself became impure in the process. One can’t think of a more contradictory law.

But purification itself is not a rational phenomenon either. Often confused with cleanliness which is a separate issue altogether.  Within the Torah there are certain laws which are rational, universal, moral and ethical. Some laws that make sense. And others make no sense whatsoever.

For me this is a fundamental element of Torah in that  it requires and validates our imagination. And having a non-rational side so that it marshals all the different ways of encountering the spiritual world as well as the physical, allowing for variety. Inspiring us in non-rational ways. We live in a scientific world in which we expect everything to be rational, to have an explanation. We like certainty. Yet increasingly we’re discovering the fact that life doesn’t work that way.
There is a lot even in the scientific world which is random unpredictable and often has to be taken on faith until such time as the evidence proves otherwise.

This week the Torah offers some other examples both of non-rationality and uncertainty. In Chapter 20, once again, we encounter the complaints of the Children of Israel. When Miriam dies there’s no water, which in itself implies that Miriam somehow guaranteed there was a constant water supply during the 40 years in the wilderness that stopped when she died. Miriam’s well. The first sign of hardship brings the irrational argument that they would have been better off if they’d have died in Egypt.

At the beginning of the 40 years when there was no water Moses and Aaron were commanded to strike the rock and water flowed. This time, following her death, a  generation later they were told to speak to the rock and in both cases, water flowed. Yet because Moses this time smote the rock instead of speaking to it, he was denied entry in the to the land of Israel. Which seems unfair and illogical.

In Chapter 21 4-8, more complaints over water. There is a plague of snakes. Moses is told to make a molten image of a snake and put it on a pole. When people looked at it, they would be cured. Another non-rational example. The rabbis explain it was a way of getting people to look up towards God and to use what we might call faith healing to solve their problems. Much later on, the Bible records that King Hezekiah destroyed this snake because people were worshipping it, instead of the symbolism, instead of turning to God.

Later in  Chapter 21 we read of documents and records. The Book of the Wars of God but we have no idea what this book was, who compiled it and why it disappeared. And travelogues that we have no idea what places they refer to despite the fact that the rabbis try their best to give rational explanations and identifications. Events, documents we cannot identify with certainty. And songs, and poetry that are not intended to be rational, or scientific. There are different forms and styles of communication that we need to respond to aesthetically rather than objectively.

There is so much that we don’t understand and yet we accept all of this as part of our tradition and heritage even as we are challenged to understand it all. We continue to try to find explanations, every week we wrestle with the rational,  just as we wrestle with the irrational and the non-rational together. This is the miracle of our existence and the wonder of the Book of the Torah. It can be understood on so many different levels and in so many different ways and continues to challenge us. What a magnificent heritage.

Numbers Chapter 19-22:1

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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