Rabbinic Reflections: Issue 22

Because I Said So!

July 3, 2020

Dear Holy Friends,

I hope you are all well and, in advance, please allow me to extend my personal best wishes for both a Happy 4th of July and a meaningful Shabbat. Also, July 4th is my youngest daughter’s birthday, so I want to give her a shout out for a happy 21st birthday!

This week’s Torah portion is Chukkat, which includes one of the most action filled chapters of the Torah (see Numbers 20). In this short chapter we read about the continuation of the march in the wilderness, the death of Miriam, the sin of Moses and Aaron by striking the rock (that results in their punishment of NOT being allowed to enter the promised land), negotiations with the people of Edom, Aaron’s death, the plague of the snakes, and the song at the well.

Nonetheless, it is the opening chapter of this parasha (Numbers 19), which often draws attention and consideration by readers at large. The portion begins by speaking of the purification ritual that happens when someone comes into physical contact with a corpse. The ritual involves the sprinkling of the ashes of a pure red cow without blemish on the person who has been in the presence of the deceased. Ironically, the Talmud and other commentators note the inherent bizarre nature of this rite. They ask, “how can the sprinkling of ashes of a dead animal purify someone who has been exposed to death itself?” The validity of the question underlies the difference between the two types of commandments we find in the Torah.

On the one hand there are classifications of Mitzvoth called Mishpatim. These are commandments for which we can easily (or sometimes, not so easily) find a rational explanation. Examples of these include, “thou shalt not steal,” “thou shalt not murder,” etc. These are laws that we would likely have fashioned ourselves as members of a reasonable or sophisticated society. The other types of commandments are called Chukkim (hence the name of this parasha, Chukat). These are directives that, by and large, defy logistical reasoning.

Historically, the fulfillment of commandments that defy reasoning (Chukkim) are considered by many to be the ultimate expression of fealty to God. That is to say, even though I may not understand the rationale behind the mandate, I fulfill it nonetheless because it is part of the tradition.

Certainly, if commentators over the years have been unable to manage coherent explanations for these types of commandments, I cannot either. However, in honor of Nava’s birthday (mentioned above), I will offer an analogy with which she would be familiar!

I grew up in a household where my parents were both loving and occasionally strict (not that these are mutually exclusive categories). As a youngster, I faced the most frustrating of interactions when I would challenge my parents regarding their “edicts.” Their answer would often be, “Because I said so.” That response would drive me up the wall and even though I pledged to myself never to use those same words, my three children will tell you that Abba’s explanation has occasionally been, “Because I said so.”

As my children grew up, I came to realize that this tenuous expression really just means that the child is either too young, naןve or inexperienced to understand the rule or simply that, there are certain rules in my house that my family and I considered sacrosanct and immutable. It may have been a rule as simple as a children can only be on the computer for two hours a day (well, I guess that is out the window) or you have to spend thirty minutes a day reading. Regardless, they had to do it because I said so.

Transitioning back to our tradition’s chukkim, perhaps the meta-narrative explaining these unexplainable commandments is that we simply do something because God tells us to do it. By observing God’s word, we thereby accept the burden of the commandments and the loyalty of being members in an exclusive club called “the Jewish people.” [Incidentally, some Rabbis suggest that when the Messiah finally comes, he will explain to us the original purpose of these commandments.]

As we continue to learn together, I urge you to feel free to question our texts and customs, so we can learn from each other, broaden our collective horizons, and benefit from each other’s experience.

And finally, if you see Nava soon, wish her a happy birthday and assure her that it is okay to do something simply because the Rabbi said so!


Rabbi Eric L. Wasser, EdD
201 562 5277

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