The relentless persecution endured by the Jews of yesteryear included decrees forcing them to hold public debates with their religious adversaries. This usually put the Jews in an impossible situation. If they tried to publicly argue the validity of their beliefs, they incurred the violent wrath of the masses. In many cases, the “judges” who determined the victor were so biased that a Jewish win was almost impossible; a loss meant expulsion, or worse. Yet refusing to debate, or allowing the other side to score a victory, meant torture or death.
On one such occasion, when a date for an obligatory debate approached, the local Jews searched unsuccessfully for a suitable candidate to act as their representative. A simple tailor offered to go, and the other Jews — cognizant of the mesirus nefesh involved — agreed. They poured out their hearts in tefillah that he should be successful.
As the debate was about to begin, the rules were announced. Each side was to ask a question of the other, and if he didn’t know the answer, he would be put to death. The priest, representing the enemies of the Jews, sized up his opponent.
“He can go first,” the priest confidently declared.
“What do the words ‘eini yodaya’ mean?” the Jew asked.
“I don’t know,” the priest replied in Polish.
The assembled gentiles, unaware that this was the correct translation of the Hebrew, took his words at face value and concluded that the priest had lost the debate. The tailor was allowed to go free, and the Jews of the area were saved.
Later, the Jews asked the tailor what made him think of such an ingenious idea.
“It is quite simple,” the Yid replied. “I saw that the Ivre teitch translation on my Chumash says about these two words: ‘Ich veis nisht — I don’t know.’ I figured that if the der heilige Ivre teitch didn’t know, the priest certainly wouldn’t…”
The Chozeh of Lublin, zy”a, used this anecdote to teach a very powerful and pertinent lesson. It was the temimus, the extreme simplicity, of the tailor that saved his life and the lives of his fellow Jews.
The road to a yeshuah isn’t paved with ingenuity, cleverness or profound wisdom. It is emunah peshutah, accepting the Will of Hashem without question, that saves Jews.
It is told that the Rebbe, Harav Henoch of Alexander, zy”a, would relate this teaching of the Chozeh each year on Parashas Parah — when we learn about Parah Adumah, the quintessential chok.
As we listen to the kriah of the Parah Adumah, we once again fortify ourselves with emunah peshutah, with the knowledge that there are matters beyond the grasp of mere mortals. Our duty is not to understand but to believe, and our ancestors have faithfully fulfilled this role throughout the most trying tribulations of our exile.
Rashi tells us that the Satan and the nations of the world aggrieve Klal Yisrael by saying to them, “What is this mitzvah? What reason is there to it?” Therefore, the Torah refers to it as a “chukah” — a “statute” — meaning, “It is a decree before Me; you do not have the right to reflect upon it.” Writing in the Warsaw Ghetto during the dark days of the Holocaust, the Piaseczner Rebbe, Hy”d, states that in addition to the actual mitzvah of spiritual cleansing through the process of Parah Adumah, there is also a prohibition against reflecting upon it.
This prohibition, the Rebbe explains, is also part of the cleansing process. In a well-known maamar, Rabi Akiva compares Hakadosh Baruch Hu to a mikveh: the way a mikveh purifies the impure, Hakadosh Baruch Hu purifies Yisrael. A mikveh achieves its purpose only if the person immersing himself is totally submerged in the water. So, too, in our relationship with Hashem, we must completely subjugate ourselves to Hashem, to the degree that there is no “I,” no separate identity. There is only a servant determined to do the Will of his Master.
The Rebbe also wonders regarding Rashi’s commentary: Where do we find that the nations of the world aggrieve Yisrael about Parah Adumah more than about any other commandment in the Torah?
The Ribbono shel Olam first offered the Torah to the nations, but they demanded to know what is written therein. Bnei Yisrael did not ask any questions; they immediately promised “Naaseh v’nishma — We will do and we will listen.”
The Rebbe homiletically explains Rashi as follows: The Satan will aggrieve Yisrael by comparing them to the other nations, telling the Jews, “You did not ask about the mitzvos, you did not demand an explanation for them. The other nations did. Yet look who is ruling over whom! Look how they are oppressing and persecuting you!”
Therefore, the Torah referred to mitzvas parah adumah as a chok, meaning, “It is a decree before Me; you do not have the right to reflect upon it.”
This is the basis of our relationship with Hashem: Recognition of the limitations of mortals and the infinite greatness of our Creator.