The sages tell us that there is a link between the 613 commandments (mitzvot) and the human body. They point out that there are 248 positive, active commandments, things we should do, corresponding to the 248 limbs or parts of the body. There are 365 negative, restraining commandments, things we should not do, corresponding to the same number of sinews. The purpose of the commandments is to express holiness by means of our physical bodies living daily life: living as human beings, expressing G‑dliness.

In order to think about the meaning of the commandments, let us consider the biological nature of the body. It forms an integral whole, each part playing a vital role in the working of the person. Over the years, medical research has revealed more and more about the functions of the various components of the body, right down to the level of enzymes, hormones, the DNA molecule and genetic codes.

Yet there are still processes that are little understood. Even during our lifetimes, the practice of removing tonsils or adenoids “at the drop of a scalpel” has been curtailed because previously unrecognized uses of these organs have been discovered.

It is clear that the body is a marvelous unity. If there is something which cannot be understood about it at this time, we have learned to expect that eventually we will discover more, and understand more. Every detail is significant.

The same can be said of the commandments of the Torah. Many can be understood, at some level. However, there are some that cannot. These are classified as chukim—unexplained statutes. There are quite a number of these in Jewish life.

The beginning of the Torah reading of Chukat (Numbers 19:1–22:1) provides an important example, although we are not actually able to carry out this law today. This is the purification procedure using the red heifer. A person who has been in contact with the dead becomes impure in a special way, meaning that he or she may not enter the Temple. The ashes of the red heifer are put in water, and a few drops of the water are sprinkled on the impure person. Now he or she is pure, and is again able to enter the Temple. The Torah uses the word “statute”—chukat—in describing this commandment.

We do not understand the concept of impurity, nor why the red heifer procedure renders the person pure. The law of the red heifer is a symbol for all the laws we cannot reduce to simple, rational terms.

An example in daily life today is keeping kosher.1 Although we do not understand the kosher laws, we can still accept them and keep them. They are “organs” of the body of the Torah which have a vital use, even though the exact way they function is not clear to us now.

Our service of G‑d cannot be limited by our understanding. In daily life, a person eats food long before understanding how the digestive process works. We use a computer, even though we may have no idea how it works “inside.” We go to the doctor and follow his or her advice to take medicine, including herbal medicine, without understanding why it should have a curative effect.

When we perform a commandment without knowing its full meaning, we demonstrate that we are doing this because we know it has been commanded by G‑d in the Torah, and that we believe and trust that this is good for us as individuals and, ultimately, for the whole world. This bonds us to G‑d, and this is the true purpose of the commandments. At the same time, G‑d tells us to use our intellect as much as possible, in order to be able to understand more.2

This also applies to the laws we think we do understand. In every Jewish teaching there are many levels, just as there are endless details to discover about each organ of the body and how it connects with the whole. Each mitzvah connects us to G‑d, and gives us the opportunity to explore more and more of its meaning.