Two chassidim and a secular Jew named Bernhardt were part of a hard labor unit which was forced to accompany the German troops in their retreat through Hungary before the rapidly advancing Russian army at the close of World War II.

At this point, the Germans realized that they had lost the war. Frightened and frustrated, they vented their vehemence and anxiety on the Jews in the hard labor unit. As their threats and violence increased, these three men began to plan their escape. “It’s true,” they told each other, “that the probability of fleeing without being detected is not high. But neither is the probability of remaining alive through the brutalities of this retreat.”

And so, they planned their breakout. They figured that the Germans would not pursue them very far; they would not risk confrontation with a Russian scouting party. If they could make it beyond the camp’s limits and avoid detection the first night, they would probably be safe.

One day, at nightfall, they hid behind the kitchen, and when darkness fell they slid on their stomachs to the neighboring forest. As soon as they were beyond eye range, they got up and began to run for their lives.

Somehow the Germans did not detect their absence immediately. By the time they did notice, the three had already proceeded far beyond the camp’s boundaries. The fear of the Russians deterred the Germans from tracking them too far. After several hours, it dawned upon them that they had attained their freedom.

For three days, they wandered through the Hungarian forest, subsisting on the vegetation growing there, sleeping briefly. Towards evening, they discovered an abandoned hut with three mattresses and the remnants of some food. They did not need any invitation. They feasted on whatever crumbs there were and lay down to sleep.

Many hours later, they were startled to hear the door kicked open. Suddenly, rifles were pointed in their direction. As a knee-jerk reaction, one called out: Shema Yisrael....

A command was hastily issued in Russian and the rifles were lowered. The leader of the Russian party was Jewish and had recognized that these were not German soldiers.

The two chassidim looked at each other in amazement. It was Bernhardt, the “secular” Jew, who had shouted Shema Yisrael. Their lives were testimony to the concept that no Jew can or will separate himself from his heritage.

Each person has his particular, individual identity and his characteristic personal means of self-expression. Beyond that, at the core of our beings, lies a fundamental G‑dly soul. The trick is to get the two elements in sync.

Parshas Chukas

When speaking about the different types of mitzvos, the Torah singles out chukim as being unique. There is one category of mitzvos, mishpatim, which prescribe activities that make sense. Even if the Torah would not have been given, we would have understood the necessity to observe them on our own. You don’t have to be G‑d to know that you shouldn’t kill, steal, or commit adultery.

There are other mitzvos, eidus, that commemorate certain events in our national history. We rest on Shabbos to commemorate the creation of the world in seven days. We eat matzos on Pesach to commemorate the matzos our ancestors ate during their exodus from Egypt. If G‑d had not commanded these mitzvos, we probably would not have invented them. Yet once they were commanded, we understand why they were commanded and appreciate their observance.

Chukim are in a different category reason. There is no given for their observance. We don’t know of any material or spiritual advantage that will be garnered by their observance; we fulfill them simply because G‑d commands us to.

There are some who explain that it is important to have such commandments to show that our Torah observance involves a commitment beyond our personal will. Even when we do not understand what G‑d has commanded us, we are willing to carry out His commandments. According to this understanding, the observance of these mitzvos is rather dry. Yes, it is necessary, but there is really no warmth or vibrancy to it.

Not everyone observes chukim in this way, however. On the contrary, we see some people who have a special joy in fulfilling chukim. Why? Because chukim relate to a point in the soul that is above our own will and our understanding. In the observance of these mitzvos, a person identifies with G‑d on His terms. He or she is doing what G‑d wants because He wants it and for no other reason. In essence, that is the most encompassing form of satisfaction a person can have.

Looking to the Horizon

The above enables us to appreciate one of the unique dimensions of the era of the Redemption. The Rambam states that “In that age, the occupation of the entire world will be solely to know G‑d.” Indeed, the singleness of aspiration that characterizes the chukim will resonate through all mankind, as the Prophet states: “All the nations will be transformed to [speak] a pure language ... to serve Him with a single purpose.” For our energies will focus on comprehending G‑d’s truth.

We have a multitude of different desires. Now it’s true, the inner motivation for any of our desires is G‑dliness. At present, however, that inner dimension is covered by many other externals. We think we are seeking things like love, wealth, or power. We aren’t aware of the essential drive propelling our will. For in any experience, what we are really seeking is the G‑dly truth it contains. In the era of the Redemption, by contrast, this truth will surface, and in everything that we do, we will appreciate the G‑dly intent.