Parshat Chukat: To Infinity and Beyond
To Infinity and Beyond
This week’s Torah portion is named after a category of mitzvot called Chukim (singular for Chok). The 613 commandments can be divided into two types: Mishpatim and Chukim. Mishpatim are laws that have a rational basis such as the prohibitions of stealing, murder or adultery. Chukim are laws that are generally beyond our comprehension and understanding.
Examples of Chukim are the prohibitions of eating milk and meat together, or to wear a garment whose fabric is a combination of wool and linen. Although we may arrive at theories to these laws, in truth they are beyond our perceptions and logic.
In our rational-based society that strives to find reasons and solutions to almost everything, it’s difficult to accept a series of laws that we have trouble understanding. To set the record straight, the majority of the Torah doesn’t operate this way. Indeed, if anyone believes that Judaism is based on blind-faith and doing things without an inkling about their true meaning, one need only consider the Talmud’s 5400 pages of rabbinic scrutiny of beliefs, opinions and laws. Talmud Torah, the study of Torah, is considered one of the greatest mitzvot, and the Talmud Chacham (wise sage) takes higher billing in the hierarchy of Jewish life over the Tzaddik (righteous person) in many respects. So Judaism is anything but a blind-faith religion that seeks to shut down the mind, and Jews may be called every name in the book, but “stupid” isn’t one of them.
This being the case, why should we have any laws that are beyond our comprehension? If knowledge and understanding are of the highest order, then why not make it so that everything is available to know? Why would God block us from certain truths and still expect us to obey them with the same intensity and devotion?
When King Solomon – considered the wisest person of all time – exclaimed, “I declared that I shall be wise, but it has eluded me,” he was referring to the commandment of the Red Heifer of this week’s Torah portion, the prototypical Chok. Even the great and wise Solomon was frustrated at his inability to understand it all.
The simplest reason for Chukim is to remind us that we are not God. Strive as we may, we cannot fathom every secret to the universe. There has to be some areas of knowledge that are unreachable and beyond our intellect if only to remind us that there is but one All-knowing Being – and we aren’t it.
But if we think about it a bit more, we will realize that the fact that there exist some areas of life that are indeed unattainable actually makes the search for wisdom all the more attractive and desirable. People have a natural attraction to the unknown, such as the man or woman of mystery. His anonymity is a key ingredient to “being the most interesting man in the world”, and the fact that he doesn’t even drink that often makes his choice of Dos Equis all the more intriguing.
A fascinating illustration of this notion that the unknown is connected to desire, interest and wisdom is expressed by Professor Alan Bloom in his work, “The Closing of the American Mind”. He draws a line between the open sexual nature in our culture, where the most intimate facets of life becomes all-knowing all too soon, and concludes that such an open and free sexuality among the young has stunted their desire to attain wisdom. Yeah, loose sexual mores kills the desire for greater understanding of life.
Hmm…what do these two seemingly unrelated things have to do with one another? Interestingly, the Torah itself draws a connection between the two by its usage of the Hebrew word, יודע yode’ah. There is yode’ah, “to know” in its simplest form as in gaining wisdom. And yode’ah, “to know” as it appear in Genesis when it describes Adam and Eve regarding sexual intimacy.
Bloom points out that the loose hook-up culture of young people ends up sapping their thirst for wisdom since the mystery around intimacy is completely lost all too soon. It then spreads to other areas of one’s personality, creating dullards in all arenas of their lives. He describes how the Unknown is a powerful and motivating force for us to grow and discover more, and concludes…
“I cannot pretend that I understand very much of this mystery, but knowing that I do not know keeps me attentive to, and far from the current simplifications of the phenomena of this aspect of our nature that links the highest and the lowest in us.”
Not knowing is the very thing that keeps us attentive and it propels us to want to strive and seek more. Imagine how boring life would be if there was some finite end to understanding our universe. How stale it would be if there was a plateau without yet another level beyond.
This dynamic is especially true in relationships and this is what Bloom is talking about. Wise is the woman (or man) who withholds something of herself to the other. Mystery is the fuel of desire, interest and even lust but it can be quickly spent if every part of one’s personality and body is on complete display under the spotlight of incessant social media posts and the like. When nothing in withheld, as many behave today by foregoing their most intimate selves by the third date, then it’s no wonder that the person is discarded and ghosted with equal haste.
This is what Chukim add to our lives. Not being able to have it all, or know it all – of the world around us, or of our significant other – inspires us to continue to want more and more. It’s this very paradox where the power of Chukim – laws and truths that are always a little beyond our reach – keeps things interesting. It is Chukim that give us a taste of God’s Infinite Being, and the forever, never-ending layers of life, love and discovery in our world.
Let go into the Mystery
Let yourself go
There is no other place to be
Baby this I know
You’ve got to dance and sing
And be alive in the Mystery