Shabbat Hukkat: The World in a Word

This week’s parashah is called Hukkat, a word that can be translated as “statute,” “ordinance,”, or, simply, “law.” We often find it as half of the hendiadys hukkim umishpatim, which you might have seen translated as “laws and ordinances” or some such. Of course, one of the basic rules for Torah study is that there is no such thing as a simple synonym; the Rabbis of antiquity sought to understand what nuance was inferred by the use of two words where one was clearly not enough.
One compelling answer is revealed by the root of the second word, which is ש.פ.ת [sh.f.t], a root that refers to judges and judgements. This word evokes the world of the courtroom, and of the human process of judgement. Mishpatim, then, are laws which are worked out by human agency, wherein the Torah’s commands are applied to real life through human discernment and understanding.
The 12th century philosopher and jurist (and mystic and physician) Rambam, also called Maimonides, explained mishpatim as that category of law that we could figure out for ourselves. The revelation at Sinai was not really necessary for this category of law, since any sane society could work out for itself that murder, theft and the like must be prohibited for human beings to be able to live together.
Hukkim, on the other hand, said the Rambam, required revelation, since hukkim don’t obviously make sense; we are not able to work out the meaning of hukkim by ourselves. Our parashat hashavua offers us the chance to consider what this means.
First of all, the word itself is hard, grammatically, to pin down. The word itself, hok, plural hukkim, can also be found in the Torah as hukah, plural hukkot. The form hukkat, the name of our parashah, is an additional form used when a feminine noun is modified by another noun immediately succeeding it. Note that the word hok/hukkah can be found in both the male and female forms (all Hebrew is gendered).
Second, the word itself comes from a root that also can be translated “etch.” This is fascinating, since one would think that such a word would connote certainty, and perhaps it does, but not of the logical sort. That is, Rambam’s definition of a hok or hukkah is that it designates those Torah laws that cannot be understood with logic, and that therefore had to be revealed.
Sure enough, the Hukkah that we find at the beginnning of this parashah is not only difficult to understand logically, it is famous in Jewish tradition as a law so difficult to understand that even King Shlomo, considered the wisest of all in his lifetime, confessed that he could not understand it. This hukkah of the Red Heifer describes a recipe to create a substance, a potion that changes the status of those made tame’ by death to tahor, and therefore capable of approaching G*d in ritual communication. The part that is most difficult to understand is that the one who creates the substance is made tame’ by contact with it…..
Or perhaps the part that is most difficult to understand is the way that Jews and non-Jews alike have seen this mysterious potion as essential to the summoning of the End of Days. The logic goes like this: until the ancient Jewish sacrificial system is reinstated in Jerusalem, the Jewish End of Days cannot come. There are Christians who believe that their End of Days cannot arrive until all the Jews are returned to Israel and to their ancient form of ritual communication with G*d.
And since the potion requires an all-red heifer, there are actually people who scour the world looking for one, for upon it all depends. (And if you have not read Michael Chabon’s novel The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, I recommend it for a highly enjoyable treatment of this topic.)
Hok, as the Hebrew word which refers to all the laws that we cannot logically understand, comes to signify something much larger than the guiding law of Judaism; hok or hukkah reminds us that many of our rituals are not logical, even as much of our lives will not yield to logic. And how glorious and vital that is! There is a mystery at the heart of life which commands our humility and our gratitude. Not all can be understood, not all is subject to human discernment and understanding.
Like everything else in our spiritual tradition, we balance that which we can know with that which we will never understand. The two terms are not, however, opposites; they inform each other in a necessary dance, just like another common hendiadys in Torah Hebrew, which is tzedek umishpat, “righteousness and judgement.” Here is our same root, ש.פ.ת [sh.f.t]. Here it is contrasted and balanced with tzedek, “justice” or “righteousness,” to remind us that even when we understand the law, it is quite possibly not just, for it is only human law, humanly arrived at.
Even as we must infuse the mishpat of law with the tzedek of righteousness, may we find ourselves able to recognize the presence of the mystery of hok and hukkah even within what we believe are our logically-derived judgements of mishpatim.
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