parashat hashavua Hukat: listening for the bat kol

The parashat hashavua, the Torah reading of the week read all over the Jewish world, is called Hukat – “law”. There are two words often used for “law” in the Torah: hukah, or hok, and mishpat. You will often see them mentioned together, and they are usually translated with words that seem like synonyms to us: “laws and statutes”, for example. 

     But Jewish tradition teaches that there are no synonyms in Torah, no wasted words and no redundancy: when confronted with hok and mishpat, therefore, we are to look below the surface of the text, and try to hear deeper resonances of Torah that can speak to us in many relevant ways, once we begin to look. Our ancestors described the more subtle nuances of G-d’s word with the term bat kol, a “still small voice” that brings insight, once we were quieted from our wordy struggles with meaning, so that we can calm down, and listen to it.

     Torah interpretation of these two terms is significantly informed by this week’s parashah. The text begins with “G-d spoke to Moshe and Aharon saying This is the hok of the Torah…” (Numbers 19.1-2) The hok, called in English a “statute”, is, in this case, the commandment of the ritual of the Red Heifer – a ritual so confoundingly illogical in its particulars that even the wise King Solomon, it is said, did not understand it.

     A hok, then, is a mitzvah, a command, that is not necessarily understood. One might suggest that its presence in the Torah is to teach that one to obey it as one obeys all G-d’s commands, because it is a command, not because it is understood. Maimonides explained the difference between hok and mishpat rationally: a mishpat is a law we could figure out on our own – a law that is logical in terms of social or personal life. But a hok is a law that we could not intuit on our own, i.e. it is a command that requires revelation by G-d.

     Torah laws that don’t make sense can be upsetting. We can disagree endlessly over them. Or they can invite us to an exercise of humility: painful though it might be, it is sometimes necessary for we human beings to be reminded that we are not, ourselves, capable of understanding everything about our lives. It is even possible, once in a while, that someone else is right, even when we are sure that we ourselves are correct. It is only through this struggle that new insights into Torah are revealed…and one of those insights is that some revelations will always be beyond us.

     Religious practice will always contain an element of mystery, of that response which the hok summons: I don’t get it. That is the enduring contribution of religion in our age; it gives us a framework to help us consider mystery, and to confront the meaning of faith as the place where knowledge cannot go. I am not sure; I cannot explain why I feel this; I just know. These are not statements of science, nor of certainty – yet there is no reason to feel anxious about that. There is mystery at the heart of life, and we will never solve it. It can make us anxious, though; it can cause us to argue and even to become angry.

     It is only when we stand in the presence of mystery, unafraid and ready to listen, that we begin to hear the bat kol, that sense of some voice outside of us that brings us insight we cannot achieve alone. It might be in the words of a friend, or a child, or a parent, or a stranger – or even an adversary in the struggle for meaning. G-d is heard every day, in the still small voice that calls to us all the time….but which we can only hear when we quiet our fears, our anger and our ego. And the way in which we deal with our uncertainty, and the way we treat each other in our anxiety, will determine whether the conflict produces more light, or only more heat.

     Hillel and Shammai managed to bring light into the world. They represented two opposing Torah interpretation groups in ancient Israel. It is said about them that they disagreed about every law in the Torah, yet they conducted themselves toward each other as one indivisible community – demonstrated by the fact that children from each side married each other. In one memorable debate between the two schools, they argued seemingly incompatibly opposite positions. 

     But at the moment when each side stopped arguing and listened to each other’s words, both sides heard it: a bat kol issued forth declaring these and these are the words of the Living G-d. (Talmud Bavli, Eruvim 13b) 

     “Living” – in mystery, in conflict, in disagreement and in contradiction, even as are we – only thus do we hear the Living G-d, and so gain insight, knowledge, and understanding as we are able. 

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