KoleinuGo Ahead and Ask Anyway
Parashat Hukat (Numbers 19:1 – 22:1)
“Anyone who looks at four things, it would have been better if they had not come into the world,” the Mishna declares in a furious mood in Hagigah 2:1: “what is above, what is below, what is before and what is after.” If you’re anything like my children, the moment that someone tells you not to think about something, not to bother investigating it, that it is just not your business – that is the moment that piques your urgent curiosity to delve in exactly there. Indeed, for the rabbis of the Talmud, who shared this human drive, this Mishna becomes the jumping off point for their earnest explorations of what might reside above, below, before and after.
Rashi seems to take a strategy similar to this Mishna with the beginning of parashat hukat, which introduces the detailed procedure for how to prepare a purifying elixir from the ashes of a red heifer. The elixir mysteriously makes those who handle it ritually impure while purifying those who receive it. Torah introduces the passage with zot hukat hatorah asher tzivah YHVH – this is the law of Torah that God commanded. Torah’s laws can be categorized in many ways; here the relevant division is hukim vs. mishpatim, that is, laws that have no external logical explanation (hukim) and laws that make sense for safety and kindness in human governance (mishpatim).
Rashi writes about our verse:
This is the law of Torah, because the Adversary and the nations of the world will hold Israel to account, asking “What is this commandment and what is the reason for it?” Therefore it is called hukah, meaning, it is a decree before Me and you do not have permission leharher ahareha – to ponder it/think about it/raise doubts about it.
Rashi is referencing sources in midrash (BT Yoma 67b and Tanhuma Hukat 7) that link this mitzvah to others that are also described as hukah – among them the prohibitions against mixing wool and linen in a garment and eating pork; and the process of sending the scapegoat out into the wilderness bearing the sins of the people on Yom Kippur. In his commentary on the Talmudic passage, Rashi articulates his concern:
You may not think about them – lest you say they are acts of tohu [of the chaos that pre-exists creation] – What atonement can there be in sending this thing out, and what could there possibly be in the cliff to help you?
By using the word tohu, which appears in the second verse of Torah to describe the state of being before creation, Rashi links pondering the red heifer’s ashes with the Mishna in Hagigah’s contemplation of what exists beyond the boundaries of known space/time. In Rashi’s formulation, to ask how or why this ritual works is to gaze into that abyss.
But the other thing we know from Rashi’s commentary (and from the millennia-old sources he is citing) is that this is one of the passages in Torah that we’re likely to get asked about. It’s been happening for thousands of years, and it is still happening today.
Last week, while I was waiting in line for lunch, an evangelical Christian friend approached me with curiosity, respect, and excitement to ask what I thought of the project she’d recently learned about to recreate the vessels of the Temple (including of course the ashes of the red heifer of our very verse). She was surprised that I was not yearning for a literal restoration of the Temple, and sat me down to ask about the mechanics of atonement in a non-sacrificial Judaism and the authority of Torah in the evolutionary Judaism I was describing – recognizing that our living practices will always be changing even as they remain linked to our origins (which makes space to literally pray for a metaphorical yearning). This conversation, fueled by mutual respect and curiosity, felt far from the abyss Rashi feared, but rather essential to the kind of learning that builds participatory democracy – actually understanding each other’s worldviews.
But it didn’t have to go that way. Rabbi Levi Yizhak of Berdichev (18th c. Poland) suggests that the Adversary might be asking about the red heifer to trouble Israel by raising the notion that this mitzvah’s purpose is to effect atonement for the transgression of worshipping the golden calf. With an intent to harm (rather than to learn), this inquiry is meant to raise the idea that there is some fundamental flaw in the relationship between God and Israel that must be repaired. The kind of contemplation Rabbi Levi Yitzhak would have us avoid by saying “it’s a decree don’t ask about it” is a questioning of our fundamental worthiness and connection.
Deep self-doubt can emerge just as easily from inner dialogue as from an external questioner. Rabbi Hayim Arye Leib (19th c. Russia) notices a doubling in Rashi’s comment “what is the commandment/what is the reason for it” and “it is a decree before Me/you do not have permission to ponder it.” He reads the doubling as two moments of inner doubt, one before doing a mitzvah and one after. Before, a person asks “What value and importance does this have? Might there be something more important to do?” and might thereby abandon the mitzvah that is in front of them. If they’ve done it even through the doubt, they might then ask afterwards, “What good does this mitzvah do? It must be one of the great ones,” and thereby stoke their own ego. Avoiding asking these questions would allow a person to simply do mitzvot without the self-doubt before or the self-aggrandizement afterward.
As they interpret Rashi’s proposed limit on discourse, these Hasidic rabbis have a laudable goal: allow us as Jews to seek to walk a path of holiness in the world without questioning our fundamental worthiness or puffing ourselves up with pride.
But in that quest we must not lose our fundamental curiosity and delight in exploring the mysteries we might never understand.
Talmud (Yoma 14a) suggests that the mystery inherent in contemplating the paradoxical action of the red heifer’s ashes goes back to ancient times, quoting King Solomon (Kohelet 7:23): “I thought I could fathom it, but it eludes me.” The next verse in that passage continues rhetorically: “The secret of what happens is elusive and deep, deep down; who can discover it?” But there is a long rabbinic tradition of reading rhetorical questions as invitations: Right – who can discover it? Keep seeking, keep contemplating, keep asking, with humility, confidence, desire and delight.
Ordained by the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010, Rabbi Emma Kippley-Ogman is Associate Chaplain for Jewish Life at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN.