By Rabbi Mordechai Young
When I was a bachur, I had an interesting conversation with some friends in yeshiva. We discussed the mitzvah of reading through the weekly parashah (shnayim mikrah v’echad targum). One friend, Ahron, was using Targum Onkelus as the translation of the pesukim. Another friend, Aryeh, was using Rashi’s commentary as the translation.
So we talked about the two translations. I was of the opinion that it’s better to learn the pesukim with Rashi’s commentary even if you miss some of the parashah. I thought that if one doesn’t understand the Aramaic translation of Onkelus, it could foster laziness in the reader, leading him to not think about what he is learning. A bachur named Roy, a.k.a. Meir, posited that we don’t understand a lot of the mitzvos, and it’s O.K. to not understand. Some thought we should understand what we could and learn with Rashi. Others felt that it’s O.K. to not understand and cover more with reading Onkelus.
In this week’s parashah, we learn about the mitzvah of parah adumah. The Torah states, “Zos chukas haTorah — this is the decree of the Torah,” to take a completely red cow that never had a yoke upon it (never worked). Rashi teaches that it’s a chok — it’s beyond human understanding.
In Sichos Mussar, Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz quotes the question of the Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh. Why does it state, “This is the decree of the Torah?” It should have said, “This is the decree of impurity,” since the purpose of the parah is to purify those who became impure. Sichos Mussar explains the answer. When we fulfill a mitzvah for which we know the reasoning, it isn’t clear that we are doing it because Hashem said to do so. It could be viewed as acting in a way that makes sense to the person, and that’s the reason he does it. By the mitzvah of parah adumah, the Torah is teaching us that if you fulfill this mitzvah that you do not understand, it’s as if you fulfilled the whole Torah. When you complete a mitzvah you don’t understand, you are showing your unconditional emunah in Hashem, showing that you really are prepared to do anything Hashem desires.
The Torah has mitzvos that we rationally understand, like “don’t kill” and “don’t steal.” The Torah has other mitzvos that we do not understand, like shatnez and parah adumah. Why didn’t Hashem keep it consistent? The Torah could have had all the mitzvos be understood or all of them not understood. If all the mitzvos were understood, we would take for granted the holiness of the Torah. If all the mitzvos were not understood, we would not feel connected to the Torah and perhaps feel it’s too lofty to even try to keep. It appears to be a great balance in the Torah.
I think we could answer the Ohr HaChaim’s question that the pasuk says this is the chok of the Torah to remind us even the mitzvos we do understand are all done because Hashem said to do so. Someone asked some chassidim on Yom Kippur why they were fasting. They said because it was Yom Kippur. The questioner persisted, so they responded that it states in the Torah to afflict yourself, which the Gemara teaches means to fast. The answer still was not enough, so finally they answered, “Because Hashem said so.” Jackpot! That was the answer he was looking for — to remind them that it’s our King who wants us to fast.
On a deeper level, there are things that happen in life that we don’t understand, and we may want to question why these things are happening. It appears that the mitzvos are not only commandments of our King but also lessons in life. They are teaching that everything that happens in life, whether we understand it or not, is from Hashem. The pasuk states, “Zos chukas haTorah.” “Chukas” represents what we don’t understand. “HaTorah” is our lesson that it is all good because Hashem is controlling it.
Rabbi Mordechai Young is available as a remedial rebbe and tutor. He can be reached for comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.