Vort from the Rav: Chukas

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Bamidbar 19:1:

זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה

This is the statute of the Torah.

The chukim were classified by our rabbis as unintelligible, enigmatic, mysterious. Though it is forbidden to ask for the reasoning pertaining to certain divine categorical imperatives, we may inquire into the interpretation of the law. There is a difference between explanation and interpretation.

Take physics, for example. Physics does not ask “why” because “why” is not a scientific question; it is a metaphysical question. There can be no scientific “why” for water freezing at 32 degrees Fahrenheit or for light traveling at 186,000 miles per second. Asking “why” God issued certain commandments is seeking to comprehend the unfathomable. Man must recognize that the ultimate “reason” for mitzvos is beyond his grasp: the very question of “why” in regard to mitzvah observance is philosophically invalid.

When we ask “why” in the context of human activity, we are truly asking, “What motivated him?” Motivation carries an implication of an unrealized need. But with regard to the divine, it is impossible to ascribe motivation to God because He has neither needs nor deficiencies. Thus, in response to the question of why God created the world, we cannot answer that it is because He is kind and wanted to bestow goodness to the world; this assertion implies that God has some vague “need” to do good. The only acceptable answer to the question is, “He willed it”—as Rashi comments on this verse, gezerah hi milfanai.

However, the question “what” can be asked. What is the meaning of this chok as far as I am concerned? What does the chok tell me? One does not ask, “Why did God legislate Parah Adumah?” or “How does it purify the ritually defiled?” but one can ask, “What is its spiritual message to me?” or “How can I, as a thinking and feeling person, assimilate it into my world outlook?”

The avodah shebalev must be present in every religious act, in the ritual as well as the moral. Although the kiyum hamitzvah can be achieved through a mechanical approach, 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. In order to offer God my heart and my soul, in order to serve Him inwardly with joy and love, the understanding and involvement of the logos in the ma’aseh hamitzvah is indispensable. We cannot experience the great bliss, the great experience of fulfilling divine commandments, if the logos is neutral, shut out of that involvement.

We have no right to explain chukim—but we have a duty to interpret chukim. What does the mitzvah mean to me? How am I to understand its essence as an integral part of my service of God? We do not know why the mitzvah was formulated. 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, but one that we are duty-bound to ask. (RCA Lecture, 1971; Derashot Harav, pp. 226-227)

From the newly released Chumash Mesoras HaRav – Sefer Bamidbar

About Arnold Lustiger

Dr. Arnold Lustiger is a research scientist and has edited multiple volumes of the Rav's Torah, including the recently published Chumash Mesoras HaRav.

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