Chukat: Strange Statutes

The Red Heifer

This is the chukat of the Torah, which God has commanded… (Num. 19:2)

Chukat means “Statute” and specifically refers to Torah laws that are difficult to understand or have no clear purpose. Many Jewish laws, such as “Do not murder” or “Observe the Sabbath day” make sense to us. A society where people have license to kill each other will self-destruct. Having a day of rest is healthy for body, mind and spirit. But what about the law of the red heifer, the statute that begins parsha Chukat? The red heifer is an entirely red cow without blemish (very rare) that must be slaughtered and burned in a detailed ritual, after which the ashes are used in purification ceremonies. We follow the chukat statutes because God told us to, not because they make sense to us.

The Torah tells us that following these incomprehensible statutes “will be proof of your wisdom and discernment to other peoples” (Rashi on Deut. 4:6). Why will non-Jews consider us wise for following laws that seem pointless, even absurd? Doesn’t this make us look silly rather than smart?

Rabbi Moshe Kormornick answers this with a parable: there are three sick people who need medical treatment. Two are fools and one is wise. The first fool tells the doctor, “I refuse to take this medicine unless I understand exactly what it is and how it works!” Since he has no medical background, he is incapable of understanding the science behind the medicine, refuses to take it and dies. The second fool takes the medicine, but doesn’t bother to ask if the person offering it is a trained physician. If the “doctor” is a fraud, the medicine won’t work. The third patient is a wise man. He first confirms that the person offering medicine is indeed a trained and certified medical practitioner. Once he knows that, he agrees to take the medicine despite not understanding exactly how it works. Wisdom means trusting the professional.

So, too, with God’s statutes. We don’t need to understand them as long as we know they were given to us by our Creator with infinite love. Rabbi Kormornick says, “It is most appropriate that the Jewish People receive praise for their wisdom in following these incomprehensible statutes, for our decision is not made on the statute itself, but on the One commanding it.”

Image: “The World Cow” by Franz Marc, 1913

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