Chukim: They are Not in Heaven
The meaning of the Torah and the Chukim are not meant to be obscure to us. In this episode, I argue that it is all quite simple and we can understand it – today.
I really wrote this episode for one person – so frequent readers and listeners will find the material quite familiar. You have been warned.
I attended an interesting shiur this past Shabbat. In it the speaker was talking about Chukim and Mishpatim. In modern English, we translate these words as Statutes and Laws. In long-standing Rabbinic tradition, Chukim are beyond understanding while Mishpatim are laws that can be understood.
The Rabbi giving the shiur was claiming that Chukim are understandable, but that understanding has essentially been lost to time. The meaning is there, but they are made distinct by the loss of understanding. I have a slight problem with this perspective. How, after all, were the Chukim lost to time but the Mishpatim were not?
To put it another way, did G-d plan that these specific laws would have their purpose lost to us – although the purpose of other laws was not?
No, I think the distinction is somewhat different. As frequent readers of my material know, I believe Chukim are differentiated by their purpose – not the state of our understanding. Mishpatim have a direct effect on the world. A normal, human, measurable effect. Chukim, on the other hand, are inherently symbolic. They are a way of speaking and expressing a holy language through the use of a physical medium. I don’t think this Rabbi would find that controversial.
What he might find controversial is that this language is relatively simple and something that we can easily understand today. To borrow the Torah’s words, it is not in heaven or beyond the sea.
In fact, I believe that our attempts to understand it – through the combined lenses of Hellenistic, Medieval, Renaissance and Enlightenment thought – have been doomed by those lenses.
We obscure what is obvious and thus celebrate that which is mystical.
I believe we enjoy the mystery more than the we enjoy the resolution of it.
As I see it, the Torah has running through it a singular logic. G-d creates for six days – that is good. The things that are not good are Heaven, Shabbat, Night and Man. They are specifically those things that are not creative. Then He rests on the seventh day, making it Holy. The world ceases changing and we have an opportunity for a relationship with the timeless G-d. That is holiness. Goodness and Holiness never intersect in the Torah. The closest they come is in the building of the Mishkan with the reference to Holy Work. Everything is about us using goodness – and distancing ourselves from the evil of destruction – in order to experience goodness. We walk in the path of Hashem.
The way I read it, when it says you work for six days and rest on the seventh – both parts are commandments. You work the land for six years and let it rest on the seventh – both parts are commandments. We work the Garden and we Guard it. To quote the Chumash, Hashem put us in the Garden לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ.
How does the ‘Holy Language’ of Chukim play into this? Every color, every material, every animal, ever word has a representative meaning. Every shape and dimension can be derived and understood. I’m not speaking about theoretical ideas. This glossary of physical terms can be understood now. I’ve written one and it isn’t very long. We just have to open our eyes to it.
Yes, we can delve far beyond these concepts – but these concepts, these languages, these physical words, remain constant. I’ll give a classic example. Parah Aduma – the Red Hefer. I’m not going to go into all the ingredients, although they are also clear. I’ll stick with the top level. A Bull represents a nation. This is why we offer 70 bulls on Sukkot. This sort of intersection of bull and nation was very common in ancient times. The 12 tribes offer 12 young bulls because in a way they represent 12 young nations. This theme touches the egel, Pharaoh’s dreams and more. But it isn’t quite that simple. Because this is not just a bull, but a female cow.
There are three ways in which gender (using the now old definition) is used to classify things.
The first of these, and most fundamental, is biological. A man has positive reproductive will. He can force himself on an unwilling woman – or withdraw himself from a willing one. But no matter how much reproductive will he might have, he has no capability to actually give birth to a child. The female is actualization, the male is will. Adam (or mankind) plants, Adama (the feminine, which means earth) is what yields crops. The male G-d (Elokim) creates the world. The female G-d (Shechina) waits in the Mishkan, converting our willful offerings into spiritual reality.
Combine these concepts and the Parah Aduma – the all-red female cow – represents unlimited national potential. This is why the animal can never be worked. None of its potential can be used. This is why it has to be completely red – no part of it can lack that intrinsic symbolic capacity.
The animal is slaughtered, burned and then mixed with water – as with osmosis, water is consistently the medium of spiritual renewal in the Torah. That water carries within it the symbolism of unlimited potential. Those who are exposed to death have been exposed to a loss of potential. They are sprinkled with this renewal of potential on the third and seventh day (the third day is the data of the creation of life, the seventh day gives it purpose) and they are made pure once again. Their exposure to evil has been symbolically negated.
Why is the person who kills and burns the animal then impure? Because they took a living animal and for no reason other than the exposure of others to evil – they killed it. They experienced a loss of potential – they brought it about. And so, they are made impure even as those who are sprinkled with the ashes – the ashes made distant from the loss of the animal by their processing – are renewed by the symbolic product of the animal.
I’ll give another simpler example. The Jewish people are often represented by goats. Goats are rambunctious and rebellious. My older brother likes to say they represent deception – as they are used to deceive Yitzchak. For Az Azel, we sacrifice these two goats. One goes to Yuk-Kay-Vav-Kay – the G-d of past, present and future. The other goes to Az-Azel – literally the goat of disappearance. One becomes a part of Forever, the other a part of ForNever.
That is our message on Yom Kippur – we are rambunctious, we can be deceptive. But we can either be a part of forever, or we can disappear as if we never existed.
Again, it goes deeper than that. There are other elements of the ritual. There are other aspects of the language being spoken. But the core concept is there.
I sometimes can’t stop myself, so I’ll give a few more. On Rosh Hashana we establish a core of offerings that follow us to other holidays. Eiyil Echad, Ben Bakar, Sheva Kevasim. A ram, a young bull and seven lambs. Why?
The Ram represents fear of G-d – and is offered at the Akeidah. It also represents G-d’s Zocher – or remembrance of covenants. He couldn’t allow Yitzchak to be killed because he had established a divine contract with Avraham. This is why we read the story of Yishmael’s rescue on Rosh Hashana. Hashem had promised Avraham Yishmael would be rescued, and so he had to be.
The Ben Bakar is what Avraham offers when the Meraglim come to tell Sarah she will have a child. She deserved the child. She Pakaded the child – to mix grammars. She was justly rewarded for her righteousness. We also read this on Rosh Hashana.
Finally, the Sheva Kevasim are what Avimelech offers with Avraham when he recognizes that Hashem is with Avraham. He represents the error of his ways. He may not have a perfect Teshuva, but it is still a process of Teshuva. This is the offering of Teshuva. We also read this on Rosh Hashana.
It all wraps together. We bring offerings of Teshuva, Pakad and Zocher – the three paths to blessing – and we read stories that bring those animals as examples.
The representations are consistent. A will offering must be male. It can be hard to tell a male dove from a female one, so we rip out the crop and the entrails – the potentially female parts. Why do we only offer doves? Because they are the only kosher bird that produces milk for its young – they are physiologically dedicated to their young after birth. They are thus holy – by virtue of their physiological programming that connects to the future. They reach in their way, in their symbolic language way, for the timeless.
The Mishkan continues with the simplicity. We use physical forms to speak a spiritual language. Parshat Mishpatim – which defines our core legal set – has 53 human enforced laws at the beginning of the reading and 56 potential outcomes. They represent the Mamlechet Kohanim – the Kingdom of Priests with laws. They give structure to our reality. The Mishkan has 53 inner pillars and 56 exterior ones. The pillars represent law and Mamlechet Kohanim.
A Goi, on the other hand is far more formless. It has no shape. It is not well-defined. Kadosh itself is infinity and it is hard for us to put our fingers on. The curtains, are inherently floppy. They have no form. They represent the Goi Kadosh. They have Keruvim, timeless angels, on them.
Put these two together, pillars and curtains, and you have a physical representation of the Jewish people. Mamlechet Kohanim and Goi Kadosh.
Hashem says he wants to dwell within the people. So what goes inside this building? Representations of Hashem’s revelations. The Menorah burns and is never consumed. It is the Sneh. The Show Bread represents Hashem’s showing Himself to the people through the Ma’an. The table represents the elders eating at Hashem’s table. The Aron represents Har Sinai. Hashem’s representations literally dwell within the representation people.
Again, it goes much further. Every material choice and dimension speaks this simple language and reinforces these messages.
The Rabbi brought up Tzitzit. His explanation was good, but it missed a bit. Techelet, I believe, is the color of the sky. There is nothing dead in the sky. Dead birds fall. So, the sky represents purity – Tahor – a place without loss. The Mitzvah of Tzitzit is given in the immediate aftermath of the sin of the spies. The people saw themselves as grasshoppers – as homeless, nomadic, nobodies – in the face of the great middot of the residents of the land. Nothing is more constant in our lives than clothing. Not even food. The Tzitzit are given in the immediate aftermath of the spies in order to tell us that we aren’t nobodies. To transform our middot. Instead, they are a constant reminder that we are G-d’s pure people and so long as we have a relationship with Hashem, we will never be grasshoppers. In fact, it is meant as a lesson to the children – as the parents will die and pass on the dream and the mission. Tzitz also means blossom. This form of the word is used in Parshat Korach which comes up right afterwards.
This constant thread represents the first step of the future – the path of future purity – and of a future without loss and destruction.
Of course, again, as listeners and readers know, it goes further. But the essence remains and the words and the grammar of the language remain constant.
This language is not complex. It is not meant to be hidden or difficult. From Tzarat to Korbanot, it is all there. It explains Chagim, Arba’at Haminim, the Omer and even the lack of symbols on Shemini Atzeret. It doesn’t just apply to the Mitzvot, though. Yosef’s dreams have alternative interpretations and we can learn from what Yosef does and does not say. The plagues bring messages – clear messages. The almond tree in Parshat Korach is laden with so many layers of symbolism that stretch throughout the Chumash.
Sometimes it even shows up on the physical page. Look at Az Yashir. It is ASCII art of waters on the sides and the people in the middle. We know it because many representations – writings – of it have a final line with two breaks. And either end of the line are the words “Yam” for sea. And in the middle it says “And the people of Israel travelled in the midst of.”
It is obvious. It is telling us it is ASCII art. But we don’t see it anymore. We miss the obvious language.
In fact, I believe there is only one commandment that is meant as a classical Chok – that is meant just as something we respect and do even though we don’t understand it. That is Shatnez. It is in a collection of laws in Devarim and the specific section of those laws into which it has been placed are laws of neighborly consideration. For me the message is this: we must let G-d have His space. We must remember that there are boundaries. This Chok exists for precisely the reason ascribed to other Chukim – because we need that lesson too.
We can understand things, though, on this simple physical level. We use the physical to speak a spiritual language. As we move beyond the top-level sentences (Parah Aduma) to the individual clauses (what does the Cedar represent or what does the Hyssop representing) we can deepen our understanding of the truth the Torah is teaching us to speak.
It is all there.
There is more, there is always more. There is the tension between the divine and the human – which I’ve been fond of writing about for the last few years. There is the development of responsibility and the displays of human archetypes. There is the exploration of failure and the paths of redemption.
But it can all be understood through this simple spiritual language of physical symbolism.
So, what of our Rabbinic Mitzvot? As I told the Rabbi, I am no expert on Halacha. But I tend to find that what we actually do is, perhaps unwittingly, an expression of this same language. As a great example, the species we use for the arba’at hanimim perfectly capture, and enhance, the meaning intrinsic of the Biblically identified species. We say Shabbat Shalom and Shavua Tov – capturing the difference between the G-dly week of creation and the day of Rest. And so on and so forth.
My understanding breaks down when I step into Halacha. I don’t have a great understanding of it. But when I do explore, it I tend to find that it is reflection of these Biblical ideas – even if I don’t always understand the connection. In fact, even if those who maintained and derived the law might have been wearing Greek, or Islamic or Medieval eye shades and have had a hard time seeing the connection themselves. I believe the Halacha has carried forward these messages even if we have a hard time seeing it and those who saved it for us had a hard time as well.
So, thank you Rabbi for your talk. I enjoyed it very much.
I just think we may be far closer to the understanding you spoke than even you yourself seem to realize.
So thank you for listening, perhaps we’ll be able to speak again in the future.
Finally, once again, Shavua Tov!