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This week's portion: Choice and change

In Kedushat Levi, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev offers some striking insights into this week's Torah portion of Chukat, riffing off of the first verse in the parsha, "This is the law of the instructed-ritual that YHVH has commanded, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel, that they may take you a red cow, wholly-sound, that has in it no defect, that has not yielded to a yoke[.]'" (Numbers 19:2, transl. Everett Fox.) Levi Yitzchak writes:

In our world, it appears to us as if we were created to engage in the things of this world. But in truth, that is not the case. The primary reason that we were created was so that we might come to recognize the unity of the Holy Blessed One...

That is the sense of "This is the law of the Torah:" there are mitzvot that reason compels us to perform. When we do them, we do not sense so strongly that we are performing them because the Creator commanded these mitzvot. That is why the Blessed Creator gave us commandments that reason does not comprehend. When we do them, we more readily recognize that we do them only because of God's commandment.

It's easy to understand why ethical commandments are important. How we treat one another matters. But ritual commandments, especially ones (like the red heifer) which don't make much sense -- those can be harder to cherish. For Levi Yitzchak, the illogic of a chok (a commandment which can't be made to fit our sensible paradigm) is precisely what makes it important. In accepting the chukim, we accept the "yoke of heaven" and acknowledge God's sovereignty.

There's something beautiful about that. It affirms that there are things in this vast universe which are beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. That life isn't all about us. That, as Levi Yitzchak writes, we were created for an ineffable purpose -- recognizing the fundamental unity of infinite God! All of our strivings and disagreements and philosophical ruminations are not the point. Performing chukim has an impact on our spiritual awareness. They're devotional practices, not intellectual exercises.

There's also something difficult about it. The red cow becomes a kind of red flag. Maybe especially for women, who may feel that we are always already trying to break free from the expectation that we will submit ourselves to priorities which come from someone else. The world is too full of hierarchy and power-over, and siting ourselves in a position of submission to incomprehensible mitzvot can feel like another iteration of the same old song and dance...

(Read the rest of this week's Radical Torah d'var here: Choice and change.)

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