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Trusting the System

07/07/2022 10:50:31 AM


I’m not a fan of telling my children to do something simply because “I said so.” While I surely am one of the authority figures in my children’s life and they ought to listen to me, I feel like my children have the right to understand the rationality and reasons behind the things I ask of them. So when I am putting sunscreen on them in the morning and my oldest asks why he needs to put it on, I explain about the power of the sun, sunburns, the skin’s ability to heal -sometimes – and the possibility of skin sicknesses that are harder to treat (skin cancers). More often than not, I have a good explanation for what I request of my children. Occasionally, though, I find it much harder to explain.

In Parshat Chukkat, we read about a ritual that doesn’t make a lot of rational sense. I’m not talking about rituals that are based on historical artifacts and assumptions of earlier generations, but rather a ritual whose internal logic is broken. In this week’s portion, the Israelites are commanded about the ritual of the red heifer. The Israelites are to take a cow that is wholly red and consume it in a special fire. The ashes that are subsequently produced are then sprinkled on those who are impure to make them ritually pure. But while the ashes are used to make others pure, the priest who touches and prepares the ashes becomes impure in the process. Or in other words, if these people touch the ashes, they become pure, but the priest who collects them has the opposite experience. For our sages, this is a classic example of a chok, a ritual law without a rational purpose. Why a red heifer? Why this process? Your guess is as good as mine. But what makes this ritual even more problematic is the logical inconsistency between the priest who touches the ashes and becomes impure, and the later Israelite who touches the ashes and becomes pure. Try explaining this one to a preschooler.

On the one hand, it is important for us to understand how the world works and why we do what we do. But if we were only to act based on what we comprehend, then there will be things that we’d never do simply because we did not understand it. I must rely on the expertise and experience of others in many aspects of my life and trust their answers. I don’t have a medical degree and thus I trust the experts when it comes to my health. I wouldn’t know where to start when it comes to building a computer, but I am glad that there are others who know how to make one. With this diversification of expertise, it often feels like I am encountering different chukkim in my life – things that I am told to do without really understanding the reason why. Sometimes, we just have to trust the system, and accept that it’s just the way it is.

Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784