Heifers, Spouses, and Other Mysteries



I make the bed as often as I do because my husband likes it. I have occasionally pointed out that we're just going to get back into it later and mess the sheets up again, but I don't usually question his logic. (And before you ask, yes, you heard right: he did give me the book Make Your Bed: Small Things That Can Change Your Life and Maybe the World last Hanukah.)


This week's Torah portion addresses neither the sin of inconsiderately messy linens, nor the excesses of compulsive bed-making. But it does remind us that rationality has its limits. Some of what is most uplifting - in this week's Torah portion and in what we do - doesn't make sense. It does, however, make meaning. This week's Torah portion begins with mystery and paradox.

Most Torah laws can be understood logically:

  • "Do not murder." Yes, I get how murder undermines safety, society, humanity, and even the honor of a Creator who fashioned us in the Divine image.

  • "Keep Shabbat.. that they may rest as well as you." OK, it's a matter of justice to give everyone rest. We all need and deserve the peace, family time, community connections, and intimacy with God that Shabbat enables.

  • "Do not commit adultery." It rarely works out well. Despite profound temptations and immediate thrills, lying, jealousy, betrayal, and pain are best avoided.


But a small minority of laws, called chukim, cannot be defended by logic alone. Chukat begins with the chok of the red heifer. Why this rare color and cow? And why should any cow's ashes turn the pure to impure and, simultaneously, the impure to pure? It bothers some Jews that none of this can be explained rationally. I happen to love it!


Theologians call chukim "super-rational" which sounds like a polite way of saying "irrational." But some laws do transcend rationality. Maimonides points out that the wisest among us could sit and contemplate over generations and still never come up with "cows yes, pigs no." But that is not to say that we make no sense when we observe kashrut - or the law of the red heifer.


Chukim remind us that there are structures and mysteries in the world which we cannot presume to understand. This is not only true of what divides pure from impure or kosher from unkosher; it is also true of what divides life from death. Mysteries abound. Sometimes it's good to rehearse on the little ones (why can't I wear wool with linen?), so we can be open to and wrestle with the big ones (why do the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper?).


I love a good chok because chukim nourish relationships. From time to time, my husband or kids or congregants or God, through Torah, ask of me something that I find illogical. From time to time, it's worth debating the point. But more often, it is better to use the fact that I don't agree to practice love. "I don't understand the logic of why you are asking this of me, but I want to be generous with you. I want to honor your requests, even (maybe especially) when I don't understand them."


Doing what's logical is only sensible. Doing for another what cannot be defended by reason is an act of faith - and of love.

Some of my favorite, most uplifting things that I have done in my life don't make any sense at all. How about you?


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