People show up for Friday night and Saturday morning services after a challenging week for spiritual inspiration. They come to hear prayers that soothe and calm them and citations from Torah, Prophets and Writings that will make it seem all worthwhile and put it all together. They look for meaning. Most of what we read and discuss does just that.
There are also some commandments in the Torah that seem to have no logical basis to them. This week’s Torah portion is “Hukat”. A Hukat is a decree. Most commandments are understandably based in reality. The commandment, for example, “don’t steal” is very straightforward: if it’s not yours, don’t touch it. HaShem in His omniscience gives everyone what they need and deserve and by taking someone else’s stuff, you’ve gone against G-d’s plan and thus G-d Himself. Besides, society would deteriorate, and nothing would get done if everyone had to constantly worry about protecting their belongings.
A Hukat by contract, is a proclamation that seems to make no sense at all. This week’s parish starts off addressing the procedure of the red heifer. This is a cow that is entirely red—two different colored hairs disqualify it—that is used in the sacrificial rite to purify anyone who comes in contact with a corpse. It makes no sense. Why not just take a shower?
A similar hukat is the laws of Kashrut. The prime directive is “Don’t cook a kid in his mother’s milk”. As we proceed through the Torah, we are introduced to a whole laundry list of living creatures that we can not eat. Why can we eat cows and deer, but not pork? And why can’t we have a cheeseburger? Why chicken and turkey but not ostrich? Why carp and trout and not lobster and shrimp?
We read these names of animals to the end waiting for the explanation. At the end we are met simply with the words, “…and you will be holy to your G-d”. Although we can understand this, it also seems kind of vague.
It’s Friday evening. You take your family out to a restaurant. While you’re waiting for your food, your wait person brings you a basket of bread and a bottle of wine. You put on your kippot and pull out two candles. Of course, in this day and age, to light candles you’d have to be outside in the smoking section under the heat lamps. But what a great way to take our family out to dinner and celebrate Shabbat at the same time.
Simply put: because we don’t. We don’t go to place that we know is not kosher (and a kosher restaurant would not be open on Friday night, of course), and speak words of Hashem that tell us not to follow our hearts or our eyes but follow the commandments.
Jews have speculated for years what the purpose of these degrees is, especially kashrut. Some will say that there are certain health reasons that are only now in the modern age starting to come to light. Some will say that back in the olden days before hot water and dishwashers that raw meat could seep into clay eating ware and when combined with milk would leave one contaminated with germs. The sages would simply say that it doesn’t matter, it’s a decree from HaShem.
How does this make us better people? In these times when man searches for meaning, how do these decrees enliven our spirit? How do we rationalize these obscure acts?
We don’t. We go with them. Consider that we’re not doing anything to harm ourselves or others. But as Captain Kirk (played by a Jew) said to Charlie X: “There’s a million things in the Universe you can have and there’s a million things you can’t”.
The bottom line, though? Ask any Marine why they do a lot of things and they’ll give a one-word, straightforward answer: discipline. We all know why we fast during Yom Kippur: to afflict ourselves and atone for our sins. But there is, as typical in Judaism, other reasons as well. And many a Marine would be proud to know that we afflict ourselves for discipline, to train ourselves to resist temptation.
Many sages would also tell you that part of the reason may to wean us from indulging temptations which are the desires of the body. In this way, we get more used to our spiritual selves. In this way, we can minimize the desires that lead us to sin in general.