There can be no order, no program, no achievement, without priorities. Life, as we envision and try to live it, consists of important and less important things, primary and secondary goals, severe and less severe setbacks. Reason, our compass in our journey through life, is the capacity to make these distinctions, to determine what must give way before what, and what should be reciprocated with what.

Priorities and gradations also exist among the divinely mandated laws of the Torah. The Torah commands “You shall not kill,” but it also differentiates between premeditated murder (punishable by death), murder resulting from negligent behavior (punishable by exile), no-fault murder (which carries no penalty), and killing in self-defense (permissible and a duty). It commands to aid a fellow in need, but it also delineates eight levels of charity; advises to whom one should give, and in what order; and sets the mandatory, ideal and maximum percentages of one’s income to be contributed. It commands the Jew to rest on Shabbat, but it also differentiates between various categories of work and the severity of their violation of the day of rest. It distinguishes between civil and moral laws, between active and non-active transgressions, between laws that apply to a specific time and place and laws that have no such prerequisites, and so on.

There is, however, a certain category of mitzvot that defies such rational structuring. Generally speaking, the 613 mitzvot of the Torah fall into three categories: a) mishpatim (“judgments” or “laws”), which the Talmud defines as laws that the human mind would have conceived on its own, even if the Torah had not commanded them (e.g., the prohibitions against murder and robbery); b) eidot (“testimonials”), laws whose function and utility are understandable, although we might not have formulated them ourselves (e.g., Shabbat, the festivals, tefillin, etc.); c) supra-rational mitzvot, called chukim (“decrees”).

Prime examples of a chok are the laws of tum’ah v’taharah, ritual purity and impurity. It is not only that these laws cannot be explained by human reason, but that they defy the organization and priority structure which characterize the logical mishpat and the rational eid. If a person touches an impure object, he is rendered ritually impure; it makes no difference whether this contact was deliberate, unintentional, or even against his will. Nor is the type of contact consequential—the same degree of impurity is effected whether he grazed it with his fingernail or he picked it up and ate it.

In other words, the chok introduces an element of absoluteness into our lives, an area in which there are no major and minor things, no primary and secondary levels of involvement. A domain in which life is not divisible into ends and means, but constitutes an integral, singular fulfillment of its Creator’s will.

In truth, every mitzvah is a chok, an unequivocal expression of divine will. It is only that many mitzvot come enclothed in garments of varying rationality, for G‑d desired that they be integrated into our rationally structured lives. But then there are those mitzvot that reach us unencumbered by finite garments, free of all that quantifies, qualifies and classifies their divine essence.

We need structure and priorities—it’s the only way we know to lead constructive lives. But we also need those moments and experiences that bring us in touch with the underlying integrity of life. Moments that impart to us the recognition that, in the final analysis, our every deed and endeavor is of equal, ultimate significance.