Torah Weekly

For the week ending 2 July 2022 / 3 Tamuz 5782

Parshat Chukat

by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair -
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The laws of the Parah Adumah, the Red Heifer, are detailed. These laws are for the ritual purification of one who comes into contact with death. After nearly 40 years in the desert, Miriam dies and is buried at Kadesh. The people complain about the loss of their water supply that until now has been provided miraculously in the merit of Miriam's righteousness. Aharon and Moshe pray for the people's welfare. Hashem commands them to gather the nation at Merivah and speak to a designated rock so that water will flow forth. Distressed by the people's lack of faith, Moshe hits the rock instead of speaking to it. He thus fails to produce the intended public demonstration of Hashem's mastery over the world, which would have resulted had the rock produced water merely at Moshe's word. Therefore, Hashem tells Moshe and Aharon that they will not bring the people into the Land. The Jewish People resume their travels, but because the King of Edom, a descendant of Esav, denies them passage through his country, they do not travel the most direct route to Eretz Yisrael. When they reach Mount Hor, Aharon dies and his son Elazar is invested with his priestly garments and responsibilities. Aharon was beloved by all, and the entire nation mourns him for 30 days. Sichon, the Amorite, attacks Bnei Yisrael when they ask to pass through his land. As a result, Bnei Yisrael conquer the lands that Sichon had previously seized from the Amonites on the east bank of the Jordan River.


A Divine Kiss

“This is the decree (chok) of the Torah…” (19:1)

It always amazes me that people professing to be atheists, when opening up their daily paper often go straight to the horoscope page. Up to a third of self-declared atheists in China believe in astrology. A quarter of Brazilian atheists believe in reincarnation, and a similar number of their Danish counterparts think some people have magical powers.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, belief in séances, tarot, mesmerism, and other seemingly supernatural phenomena flourished, quite often independently of particular religious belief systems. One of the most rational minds of the time, or the creator of the most rational mind of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed in fairies. The physicist Pierre Curie, a pioneer researcher into radioactivity, was “an atheist who had an enduring, somewhat scientific, interest in spiritualism.”

I think that the reason for all this may be that being an atheist requires an awful lot of faith. Faith that the world just ‘plopped’ into existence; faith that the incredibly complex and wonderfully beautiful world that we live in just ‘evolved’ from some primordial slime in unspecified days of yore. Faith that love, courage, jealousy, avarice are all just chemical dances in our brains.

Instinctively, we know we come from somewhere and we are going somewhere. The soul intuits its own immortality in spite of the body’s determined arguments to the contrary.

“This is the decree (chok) of the Torah…”

There are three kinds of laws in the Torah: Mishpatim, Aidiut, and Chukim. A Mishpat is a law like “You shall not murder.” It is a seemingly logical law that is shared by all the civilized world. An Aidut is a testimony of faith, like Shabbat whose observance testifies that Hashem created the world and everything in it in six days. A chok is a mitzvah that is ostensibly self-contradictory, like the purifying process of the ashes of the red heifer. Its ashes purify those who are contaminated and contaminate those who prepare those ashes. Why? Go figure?

A basic concept of Judaism is that man’s inability to understand Hashem’s wisdom shows only man’s limitations — and not Hashem’s.

A chok is as self-contradicting as a soul inside a body. It is like a Divine kiss, only understood by the partners to its intimacy.

  • Sources: “Atheists & Agnostics Also Frequently Believe in the Supernatural - a New Study Shows; “Religion,” June 13th, 2019; Tosefot to Talmud Bavli in Avoda Zara 35a

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