Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Peretz ben Chaim, Chaya Sarah bat Reb Yechezkel Shraga, Shmuel Yosef ben Reuven, the Kedoshim of Har Nof, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City, and the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, Moshe ben Itta Golda, Yocheved Dafneh bat Dinah Zehavah, Reuven Shmuel ben Leah, and the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
The mitzvah of the parah adumah (Red Heifer) is the focus of this week’s additional Torah reading. It begins with the following well-known words:
This is the statute of the Torah that the L-rd commanded, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel and have them take for you a perfectly red unblemished cow, upon which no yoke was laid.” … It shall be an everlasting statute for the children of Israel and for the proselyte who resides in their midst. (Sefer Bamidbar 19:2 and 10, this and all Bible translations, The Judaica Press Complete Tanach)
The purpose of this commandment is to purify an individual who has become tamei (ritually impure) as a result of contact with a corpse. It is a mystifying commandment, as those who are tamei become tahor (ritually pure) through the sprinkling of the ashes of the parah adumah upon them, while those who assist in this purification process are paradoxically, rendered tamei. Little wonder, then, that this mitzvah is widely viewed by chazal as the ultimate example of a chok — a commandment whose rationale currently eludes us.
My rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (1903-1993), known as “the Rav” by his students and followers, presents the following trenchant analysis of how to approach chukim such as the parah adumah:
The laws concerning chukim were classified as unintelligible, enigmatic, mysterious… However, even though it is forbidden to ask for motivation, for the motives or the reasoning pertaining to certain Divine categorical imperatives, we may yet inquire into the interpretation of the law. There is a difference between explanation and interpretation. (This and the following citations, Derashot HaRav: Selected Lectures of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, summarized and annotated by Arnold Lustiger, pages 226-227, underlining my own)
At this juncture, the Rav focuses upon a crucial difference that obtains between explanation and interpretation of the mitzvot in general, and chukim in particular: “I believe that regarding chukim (as well as mishpatim) [mitzvot whose rationale are apprehendable] we must not ask the question of ‘why,’ because ‘why’ is in general a foolish question to ask, even in regard to mitzvos which in our opinion are quite meaningful.” (Brackets my own) If “why” is an inappropriate inquiry regarding the mitzvot, what, then, may we ask? The Rav identifies “what” as the proper approach in mitzvot interpretation: “However, the question of ‘what’ can be asked. What is the meaning of this chok as far as I am concerned? What does the chok tell me? Not why did Hakadosh Baruch Hu ordain that law? [Instead,] what is the spiritual message that I can assimilate in my world view?”
The Rav continues to address the crucial distinction between explanation and interpretation, and, in so doing, teaches us what our approach to all chukim should ideally encompass:
We have no right to explain chukim — we have a duty to interpret chukim. What does the mitzvah mean to me? How am I to understand not the reason for the mitzvah, but the essence of the latter as an integral part of my service of God? Why the mitzvah was formulated we don’t know. But what the mitzvah means to me, how I can integrate and assimilate the mitzvah in my total religious consciousness, world outlook and I-awareness — that is a question that is not only permissible… I am duty bound to raise this question.
The question of “what does the mitzvah mean to me?” is writ large in the Rav’s works. Asking it before undertaking each commandment enables us to engage in authentic avodat Elokim (service of the Almighty). Unfortunately, if we fail to do this, we risk having our mitzvot actions reduced to the mechanical and formulaic performances that Yeshayahu the prophet decried so long ago: “… And the L-rd said: ‘Because this people has come near; with their mouth and with their lips they honor Me, but their heart they draw far away from Me, and their awe of Me has become a command of people (mitzvat anashim melumdah), which has been taught.’” (29:13) The Rav formulated this concept in the following manner:
Avodas Elokim means not only to discharge the duty, but to enjoy, rejoice in and love the mitzvah. But the avodas Elokim is unattainable if the chok does not deliver any message to us. If there is no idea suggested by the chok, how can you be an oved Elokim [servant of the Almighty]? In order to offer God my heart and my soul, in order to serve Him inwardly with joy and love, one thing is indispensable — the understanding of the logos [human reason] in the ma’aseh hamitzvah [mitzvah action] We cannot experience the great bliss, the great experience of fulfilling Divine commandments if the logos is neutral, shut out of that involvement. (Brackets my own)
With Hashem’s help and our fervent desire, may we ever be focused upon the question, “what does the mitzvah mean to me?” May it lead us on the path of true avodat Hashem as we strive to encounter His Divine presence and fulfill His will. V’chane yihi ratzon.
Shabbat Shalom, and may Hashem in His infinite mercy remove the pandemic from klal Yisrael and from all the nations of the world.
Past drashot may be found at my blog-website: http://reparashathashavuah.org
They may also be found on http://www.yutorah.org using the search criteria Etengoff and the parasha’s name.
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*** My audio shiurim on the topics of Tefilah and Tanach may be found at: http://tinyurl.com/8hsdpyd
*** I have posted 164 of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s English language audio shiurim (MP3 format) spanning the years 1958-1984. Please click on the highlighted link.
Talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik zatzal