In life, there are people, circumstances, and scenarios which we understand and there are those that leave us perplexed. Sometimes it’s due to lack of knowledge or familiarity and sometimes it’s just beyond our comprehension. The purification process, where the Kohen sprinkles the ashes of the Parah Adumah on the defiled, is a pure enigma. In this process, the impure becomes pure yet the pure becomes impure. That is why the Torah introduces this process as a Chok – Zos Chukas HaTorah – This is the law of the Torah. As Rashi explains, the word “Chok” means a law without any obvious rationale, as opposed to a Mishpat – which is a law whose purpose we can comprehend. However, the word Chok also has a second meaning –to inscribe– as is used regarding the Luchos (tablets of the Torah) “Chakuk Al Pi Luchos” – that is, to be inscribed, or etched, into the stone.
Rav Hirsch tells us that in Lashon Hakodesh (the holy Hebrew language), if a word has two meanings, there is a common concept they share. So what is the connection between Chok as a law without rationale and Chok as an etching? There is a very telling Rashi in Parshas Acharei Mos (18:3) “Uvchukoseiheim lo seleichu” –and in the Choks (ways) of the Nations do not go. Rashi explains that the Chukim of the nations refers to the cultural ways of the nations, which are ‘chakukim,’ “etched,” into the fabric of society, i.e., widely accepted; for example, going to theaters and stadiums. Thus Rashi explains how a Chok is a cultural phenomenon (not necessarily based on logic) which is etched into the fabric of society, thereby uniting both uses of the word Chok.
When one writes something on paper, two separate items result: the paper and the words which are written on the paper. However, in an etching, the surface itself forms the words. As such, a Chok is something which is part of the fabric itself. This explains a puzzling Chazal which expounds on the verse, “Zos Chukas HaTorah, adam ki yamus b’ohel….” This is the teaching regarding a man who would die in a tent.” (Chukas 19:14) We learn from this that Torah is acquired by those who kill themselves to understand it. (Gemara Brachos 63b) This is a very strange way to describe the need to apply oneself to Torah study. Why such an extreme?
I remember hearing an interview on the news with a Yankee fan after the Yankees won the 1996 World Series after eighteen years of not even making it to the World Series. The fan said, “The Yankees won the pennant; now I can die!”
A little extreme, right? Is this logical? Is this what he was living for?? Really, he was expressing a feeling about something he felt was part of him. The Yankees were his life. Why do people enjoy watching sports? Sports is a national and international craze. But what does your favorite team really have to do with you? People are so taken with the game and its players, yet receive no direct benefit from the team. Why? No need to look for logic here- they just enjoy it.
We find the word Chok used in the beginning of Parshas Bechukosai: “Im Bechukosai Seleichu….” Rashi explains this means if you toil in my Torah, then you will merit all the blessings. So we see that the Torah uses the word Chok in regard to diligent Torah study. The reason is as we quoted– Zos Chukas HaTorah, but the interpretation now is: This is our culture – the Torah. Other peoples have theaters and stadiums as staples of their culture, but our culture is only the Torah.
Now we can understand how Torah is acquired by one who “kills himself” to understand. It’s not an extreme, but rather an expression of how acquiring Torah knowledge is the core of a Jew’s life, into which he puts his all, like the person (l’havdil!) who felt the Yankees’ victory was his whole life.
There is an incredible insight from the Ohr Hachayim which says we are compared to parchment and every time we learn Torah, we are carving the words of Torah into ourselves. A Jew’s true essence is Torah. That’s what we should live for and that’s what we should die for. As we say in Maariv each night, “Torah is our life and lengthens our days, and in Torah we toil day and night.”
Indeed, the Torah is the essence of who we are. May we all accept the concept of Torah as our culture, in which we revel.