Descartes’ Error
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Chukat5784
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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

The human brain is a highly complex organ. Timothy Wilson of the University of Virginia has estimated that the mind can absorb 11 million pieces of information at any moment. We can be conscious of only a tiny fraction of this. Most of what is going on mentally lies below the threshold of awareness. New discoveries like this reveal how significant emotions are in our decision-making.

Antonio Damasio tells the story of a clever man with an excellent memory who he suffered brain damage. After a surgery, although he could still reason perfectly well, he lost the ability to feel emotion. Suddenly, he was unable to make sensible choices, and his life went into freefall. He became disorganised. He squandered all his savings. He divorced his wife, married a second time, and rapidly divorced again. Another man with a similar injury found it impossible to make decisions. When given any two options, he would take out a notebook and begin listing the pros and cons of each, talking about likely weather conditions, traffic, potential conflicts and on and on, until a choice was made for him. Damasio wrote about both these men in his book, Descartes’ Error.

Our choices are influenced by emotion more than reason. It takes emotional intelligence to make good choices. The problem is that much of our emotional life lies beneath the surface of the conscious mind.

That is how we can understand the logic of the chukim, the “statutes” of Judaism, the mitzvot that seem to make no logical sense to us. These are laws like the prohibition of sowing mixed seeds together (kelayim); of wearing cloth of mixed wool and linen (shaatnez); and eating milk and meat together. The law of the Red Heifer, with which our parsha begins, is described as the chok par excellence. There have been many interpretations of the chukim throughout the ages. However, in light of recent neuroscience, we can suggest that perhaps they are laws designed to bypass the prefrontal cortex and the rational brain and create instinctive patterns of behaviour to counteract some of the darker emotional drives at work in the human mind.

For example, as Jared Diamond has chronicled in his book Collapse, wherever humans have settled throughout history, they have left behind a trail of environmental disaster, wiping out whole species of animals and birds, destroying forests, damaging the soil by over-farming, and so on. The prohibitions against sowing mixed seeds, mixing meat and milk, combining wool and linen, and so on create an instinctual respect for the integrity of nature. They establish boundaries. They set limits. They teach us that we may not treat our animal and plant environment however we wish. Some things are forbidden – like the fruit of the tree in the middle of the Garden of Eden. The whole Eden story, set at the dawn of human history, is a story whose message we can understand today better than any previous generation: Without a sense of limits, we will destroy our ecology and discover that we have lost paradise.

The point is – and that is what neuroscience has made eminently clear – this cannot be achieved by reason alone. The Hebrew term chok comes from the verb meaning “to engrave”. Just as a statue is carved into stone, a behavioural habit is carved deep into our unconscious mind and alters our instinctual responses. The result is a personality trained to see death and holiness as two utterly opposed states – just as meat (death) and milk (life) are.

Chukim are Judaism’s way of training us in emotional intelligence and, above all, to condition us to associate holiness with life and blasphemy with death. It is fascinating to see how this has been vindicated by modern neuroscience. Rationality, vitally important in its own right, is only half the story of why we are as we are. We will need to shape and control the other half if we are successfully to conquer the instinct for aggression, violence, and death that lurks not far beneath the surface of the conscious mind.

mind innder directedness

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. How do you think emotion plays a role in decision-making?
  2. How does the Red Heifer ritual address the death instinct?           
  3. Can understanding our subconscious mind help us control aggression and violence?
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Parsha in Passing

Chukat means “statute” and this week’s parsha is all about the laws and statutes we don’t totally understand, but still follow with complete devotion, e.g. the Red Heifer, keeping kosher, and the shaatnez law against mixing different fabrics (wool and linen).

After forty years in the desert, Bnei Yisrael reach Zin, where Miriam dies, leaving the people without water. God instructs Moshe to command a rock to produce water. Moshe strikes the rock instead, feeling frustrated with the people’s complaints. Water flows out, but God tells Moshe and Aharon that they will not enter the Promised Land.

Aharon dies at Mount Hor and his son Eleazar becomes the new Kohen Gadol. When venomous snakes plague the Israelites due to their complaints against God and Moshe, God tells Moshe to make a brass serpent and place it on a pole; those who look up at it are healed. The people sing a song celebrating the miraculous well providing water for them. Moshe then leads the Israelites in battles against the Emorite kings Sichon and Og, who attempt to block their passage. The Israelites conquer their lands, east of the Jordan River.

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Parsha People

young miriam hiding in the bulrushes as baby moshe in the moses basket floats away onto the river nile sister safety bible scene

Moshe: Learning to lead through challenges vast, his leadership legacy will forever last.

Aharon: A Kohen Gadol true and bold, guided the Levites in days of old. A man of holiness, and of peace. But reaching Hor, his journey ceased.

Parah Adamah: The Red Heifer, my existence is rare, never worn a yoke, all red hair. 

Miriam: In water I placed my young brother for protection. At the sea I led women to sing in jubilation. By my side was a well for all the nation. With my death, no water... dehydration?

Chok: A law, a statute, mysterious decree, guiding faith and morality.

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Parsha Practical

In Chukat, several practical mitzvot emphasise maintaining spiritual purity, respecting natural boundaries, and fostering a sense of holiness in everyday life. For example, the ritual of the Red Heifer involves using the ashes of a red heifer mixed with water to purify those who have come into contact with a dead body, underscoring the importance of spiritual cleanliness. The prohibition against mixing seeds, known as kelayim, encourages us to respect the natural order by not planting different kinds of seeds together. Similarly, the mitzvah of shaatnez forbids wearing garments made of wool and linen, emphasising the need to honour natural distinctions. Lastly, the prohibition against mixing meat and milk reinforces the separation between life (milk) and death (meat), reminding us of the value of life and the boundaries that sustain it.

These mitzvot all teach us to live with mindfulness and respect for the natural world, promoting harmony and sanctity in our daily lives.

  • What is a rule you follow today that you don’t fully understand, but you believe adds value to your life?
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Parsha Playoff

Let’s play “Word Association”. Choose a leader, whose role will be to call out words. Every time the leader says a word, everyone quickly shouts the first word that comes to mind without thinking. For example, if the leader says “sun,” responses might include “hot,” “summer,” “sunglasses”, “beach,” or “bright.” The game continues with new words, maintaining a fast pace to encourage spontaneity. There are no wrong answers. What words do you say when you’re not filtering your thoughts? It might reveal more from your subconscious than you expect!

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Parsha Philosophy

We are probably unaware of precisely why we make the choices we make. Rabbi Sacks shows how so much of our thinking and decision-making happens subconsciously. Emotions, of course, play a crucial role in making decisions. Even ones that we don’t realise we’re actively feeling. Research shows that people who can’t feel emotions on a surface level struggle to make good decisions, even if they can think logically.

This idea connects to the seemingly irrational laws in Judaism, known as chukim. These laws, like not mixing some fabrics or foods, create habits and respect for nature and life, and teach us restraint, counteracting our darker instincts like aggression. Here’s the thing: Rational thinking alone isn’t enough; we must also train our emotions and instincts, a concept supported by modern neuroscience. We can better manage destructive instincts and emotions by engraining these behaviours deeply into our subconscious minds.

  • How do you train your subconscious thinking?
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Parsha Parable

True Red

Imagine you’re on a treasure hunt, but instead of gold, you’re looking for something even rarer - kosher red heifers. That’s precisely what happened recently. As Jewish people, we dream of rebuilding the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem. Hopefully, one day, very soon! But when that day comes, one of the things we will need is some very special and very red cows for a meaningful ceremony. The problem is that these cows are super rare. They have to be entirely red. Even three non-red hairs found on its body, or two hairs of a different colour next to each other - disqualify the cow!

After searching far and wide, a rancher in Texas announced he had actually discovered five of these special cows. The rancher who raised them isn’t Jewish, but he wanted to help. He said, “I may not understand why these cows are needed, but I’m happy to help make an ancient tradition come true.”

The cows were flown from Texas to Israel on an aeroplane! Can you imagine what a trip that must have been? When they arrived, there was a big celebration. The cows will now be cared for until they’re old enough to be used in the ceremony. You can even visit these cows in Israel today. Talk about a “moo-ving” story!

red heifer para adumah 5 cows claymation style
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Parsha Puzzle

Question: How many mountains did Bnei Yisrael ascend during their 40 years of wandering in the desert?

Answer: Only 3! Har Sinai, Hor (upon which Aharon died), and Nevo (upon which Moshe died). Rashi tells us that the “pillar of clouds” flattened all other mountains in their way to make a smoother path for the people (Bamidbar 20:22).

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.


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Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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