Divine Commands: They Reflect a Higher Will


It's a scene played out in countless homes around the world: Mommy or Daddy want Junior to pick up his toys, so they plead, cajole, maybe even bribe him. Finally, they demand it.

Then comes the inevitable question — "Why?" — and its catch-all answer: "Because I told you so."

To a child, that singular explanation is never enough. And when there's seemingly no reason behind a given law — say, off-side parking regulations in New York — other than "just because," adults can find themselves just as exasperated.

Some things just defy explanation. But in the case of this week's Torah portion, it's the "I told you so" that provides all of the impetus we need to do the will of the Almighty.

The portion begins with laying out the laws of the Red Heifer, a special animal that was burned completely before its ashes were collected, and then mixed with water and some plants. This mixture then had the ability to confer ritual purity on human beings who had become impure through several different means, such as touching a corpse, and on holy utensils.

The introductory verse calls this body of laws the chok, literally the "decree," of the Torah; classical commentators emphasize the unique nature of these words and identify the preparatio of the Red Heifer as the quintessential command of the Torah.

How can that be? The Torah's instructions are not merely laws from another age; on the contrary, they continue to inform Jewish life. But the last preparation of the Red Heifer happened thousands of years ago — rabbinic sources identify nine specific instances that the procedure took place — and despite some groups' efforts to find one, no suitable animal has been found in the present era.

What makes the case so unique is its super-rationality. Like a sacrifice, the animal was burned, but no part of it could be offered in the Tabernacle. It conferred ritual purity, but anyone who had anything to do with its preparation became impure.

Jewish tradition identifies three categories of biblical commands. There are mishpatim, those commands — like the prohibitions of murder and theft — that are utterly logical and the bedrock of any functioning society. There are eidot, "testimonies," that at first glance have no logic, but implicitly have a connection to something else and so can be understood (the keeping of Shabbat, which serves as a remembrance of the seventh day of creation). And then, there are the decrees. These laws — such as kashrut and family purity — have no logical basis. But we can fathom why they are adhered to in Jewish circles.

In the end, the Red Heifer alone remains a paradox. The only reason why it is followed is because the Almighty told us so.

Clearly, our DNA demands that we constantly ask "Why?" The Talmud even identifies one commandment — of learning the Torah — as equal to all the others. But the Jewish people are also the people who, when standing at the foot of Mount Sinai, declared: "We will do, and [then] we will understand."

This week reminds us that at the base of it all, Divine commands are a reflection of a higher will, not our own. Like servants of a king, sometimes the mere fact that we're told to do something — like pursue justice, uplift the downtrodden, or even spiritually prepare the way for the third and final Temple — should be all the motivation we need.

Rabbi Joshua Runyan, former news editor of the Jewish Exponent, is editor of Chabad.org News. E-mail him at: [email protected] chabad.org.


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