“This is the decree [chukat] of the Torah, which Hashem commanded” (Bemidbar 19:2)
The laws pertaining to the Red Heifer (Parah Adumah) that was burned to produce an ash-and-water combination used to purify the spiritually impure are the most difficult statutes of the Torah to comprehend. Even King Shelomoh, who was the wisest of all men, said, “All this I tested with wisdom; I thought I could become wise, but it is beyond me” (Kohelet 7:23). The Gemara explains that King Shelomoh studied the reasons for all the commandments of the Torah and was successful in understanding all — except the Red Heifer. The law is paradoxical. The one who sprinkles the waters becomes contaminated, while the one who is sprinkled with the waters becomes pure.
On an intellectual level one can come to terms with the discrepancy by accepting that the Torah reveals the “thoughts” of the “Supreme Intellect” — Hashem — and that being the case, there are concepts that are beyond the understanding of limited mortals. Rabi Yochanan explained, “It is not the corpse that causes contamination or the ashes of the cow that cause purity. These laws are the decrees of Hashem and man has no right to question them.” A wise person realizes that man’s failure to understand truth does not make it untrue.
A question arises. Shelomoh Hamelech studied all of the Torah until he was able to make the honest statement that he truly understood the reason behind 612 of the 613 commandments. In the verse above from Kohelet, Shelomoh confessed that since he did not understand the reasons behind the mitzvah of the Red Heifer, he did not really correctly comprehend the reasons for any of the commandments at all. Why did his inability to grasp only one commandment invalidate his understanding of the others?
My grandfather, z”l, was a dapper dresser. All the photographs that we have of him, regardless of the occasion, show a man who was meticulous in his attire and grooming. Many of the pictures show his watch chain draping from his belt to his pocket. I remember as a boy going with Grandpa to the watch repairman and staring in awe as the European technician opened the back of Grandpa’s antique gold timepiece to make the necessary adjustments. Hundreds of little mechanisms, intricately intertwined, interacted to move the hands of the watch second by second. The inaccuracy of even one component would make the watch run either too slowly or too rapidly. Only when all of the pieces functioned in synchronized perfection did the timepiece keep accurate time.
The Torah is not a to-do list or a menu from which one can set priorities or choose preferences. It is the unit given to man as a revelation of the will of Hashem which, when observed completely, will produce a human being running in perfect synch. The laws are interdependent. Shelomoh Hamelech realized that one who does not accept to perform the total Torah — one who observes only what he or she understands — is making a huge mistake in his or her approach to observance. That individual does not only lack understanding of a small detail of the Torah; that person has no understanding of the Torah at all! Total acceptance — even without understanding — is the “naaseh v’nishma” approach for a successful Torah life.
Rabbi Raymond Beyda serves in the Sephardic Community in Brooklyn, N.Y. He lectures to audiences all over the world. He has distributed over 500,000 recorded lessons free of charge. He is author of the book 1 Minute With Yourself: A Minute a Day to Self-Improvement, Sephardic Press, 2008.