“Because I said so!”
Many a parent has shouted these words many a time in response to a child’s questioning his or her instruction. As parents, we find it necessary – rightfully so – to establish our authority and demand that we be obeyed unquestioningly. The fact that we told a child to do something or to stop doing something should, ideally, be enough of a reason for the child to comply. And while we at times explain ourselves, there are other times when we realize the child is incapable of understanding our demands, and we therefore expect compliance without any explanation.
The Red Heifer
We are Gd’s children, and so this is true as well of His laws and His authority.
This month, we read about the mysterious mitzvah of parah adumah – the red cow that was burned into ash, which was then mixed with water. The Torah requires that this water be sprinkled upon people and objects that have come in contact with a human corpse in order for them to regain their status of purity. The sprinkling is done twice – on the third and seventh days after the person or utensil became impure. Until the sprinkling process is complete, they are considered impure. A person in an impure state may not enter the Bet Hamikdash or partake of sacrificial food, and an impure utensil may not be used with sacrificial food.
Our tradition has, for good reason, always viewed this law as the quintessential hok – law whose reasoning eludes human comprehension. So many aspects of the parah adumah are impossible to explain, at least satisfactorily. Why should it matter if the cow is red or some other color? How does a person become pure just because this water was sprinkled on him? Why is the sprinkling done specifically on the third and seventh days? Moreover, the Torah (Bamidbar 19:21) writes that the one who sprinkles the parah adumah waters on an impure person becomes impure. This means that the waters are effective in removing an impure person’s status of impurity, but they cause a pure person to become impure. How does this make sense?
Of course, we believe that it must make sense, because these are Gd’s commands, and we know with absolute certainty that His will is just and represents the ultimate good. It is only because of the inherently limited human intellect that these laws seem peculiar.
The Midrash relates that even King Shlomo, the wisest of all men, despaired after trying to understand the rationale behind the parah adumah. He said about his failed efforts to understand this law, “Amarti ehkema vehi rehoka mimeni – I said I am smart, but it remains distant from me” (Kohelet 7:23). Brilliant minds like King Shlomo’s could understand many things and uncover the profound depths of the Torah, but certain information lies outside even their intellectual reach. And this was the case with the parah adumah.
The mysterious nature of this law was not lost upon our ideological foes. Rashi comments that enemy nations taunted our ancestors when they heard about this law. They viewed it as proof that our religion is illogical and silly, Heaven forbid. The institution of parah adumah is so peculiar to the human mind that our enemies used it as a weapon in their campaign to ridicule Judaism and lure us away from our faith. We, however, have remained steadfast in our belief in the profound wisdom underlying each and every one of the Torah’s laws. We have not and will not be swayed by the pressures imposed by our foes or by our own intellectual dissatisfaction. We firmly believe that there are deep reasons behind every mitzvah, even behind those whose rationale we cannot possibly begin to understand.
Robotic Obedience vs. Fiery Enthusiasm
This belief, however, presents us believing Jews with a difficult dilemma of sorts.
If, indeed, we firmly believe in the profound wisdom of mitzvotregardless of whether or not we understand their reasons, then perhaps we should not even bother trying to understand. Maybe we are better off blindly complying, without even thinking about the message behind any given mitzvah. This approach has the distinct advantage of avoiding the pressure to reject mitzvot which we do not understand. If from the outset we don’t expect to understand anything, then we will more easily free ourselves from the instinct to do only that which makes sense to us, and this will help ensure that we faithfully observe even those laws which seem irrational.
There is also, however, a distinct disadvantage to this approach, which cannot be overlooked. If we make no effort at all to try to understand why we do what we do, then our observance will, in all likelihood, be lifeless and robotic. We might compare this to an American being hired to copy Japanese texts. He understands not a word of Japanese, and does not even recognize any letters of the alphabet. Eight hours a day, he sits and copies the images with perfect precision, having absolutely no idea what he is writing. He performs his work diligently and capably, as he needs this job to support his family, but quite obviously, there is no passion or emotion whatsoever. He works like a robot, doing exactly what he is told to do. Essentially, he is a human copy machine.
Clearly, this is not what our Torah observance should look like. Many sources speak of the importance of joy, enthusiasm and vitality in the service of Gd. Emotions play a crucial role in religious life. But how can we be expected to perform mitzvotwith excitement and vigor if we don’t understand what we’re doing? True, we should, ideally, be excited simply by the knowledge that we are serving the King of kings. But can we realistically be expected to muster enthusiasm with this knowledge alone, while being left in the dark about the meaning of the mitzvot?
The alternative, however, poses challenges of its own. If we probe and study to uncover the deeper layers of meaning and symbolism behind the mitzvot, as many of our great luminaries have done throughout the ages, then we are setting ourselves up for disappointment and inner conflict. Even King Shlomo fell short in his quest to understand all the mitzvot; certainly, then, we will come upon many areas of religious life that seem irrational. And when this happens, we will be tempted to ignore those mitzvot. Once we grow accustomed to understanding, we will find it difficult to obey when we do not understand.
Which approach, then, should we follow? Should we observe blindly, without trying to understand what we do, even though this will likely turn us into robots, or should we strive for knowledge and understanding, even as we know that this quest is doomed to fail at one point or another?
Timeless Guidance from Pirkeh Avot
The answer, as always, is provided by our Torah sources.
In Pirkeh Avot– which Ashkenazim continue studying every Shabbat even after Shavuot – we read, “Which is the straight path which a person should choose for himself – that which brings glory to its Maker and glory in the eyes of people” (2:1). One of the greatest Sephardic sages of the modern era, the Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909), explained that the question posed by the Mishnah is precisely the question we’ve discussed. Which is the proper way to observe mitzvot– with blind obedience, or while probing to understand their meaning? Should we risk compromising our enthusiasm and rigor to ensure obedience, or should we risk compromising our obedience to ensure enthusiasm and rigor?
The answer, the Ben Ish Hai explains, is that we do not have to, and must not, compromise anything. We need to embrace both approaches, but the sequence is critical.
The Mishnah is very precise in its answer. First, we must do that which brings glory to Gd. This means committing ourselves to unconditional and unwavering subservience. We bring glory to the Almighty by doing everything He says without asking any questions, simply because this is His will. Just as a child shows his obedience to his parents’ authority by obeying their commands without any questions or protests, we similarly show our respect for and fealty to Gd by obeying His commands without asking “why,” with blind obedience. But this is only the first stage. The second is that which “brings…glory in the eyes of people,” meaning, which elicits the respect and admiration of others. When we observe blindly, people on the outside might view us with ridicule and scorn. When we uncover the depth and profundity of the mitzvot, then we earn their respect. This is the second stage of our commitment to mitzvot. After establishing our unconditional commitment and unquestioning obedience, we are then to probe and explore the mitzvot so we can appreciate their beauty and depth to the greatest extent possible. This will serve to enhance our observance and make it more exciting. But this must be founded upon a firm, solid foundation of unconditional commitment.
“We Will Do and We Will Hear”
This explains one of the most famous phrases in the entire Torah. At Mount Sinai, after Moshe informed the people that Gd would be giving them the Torah, they proclaimed, “Na’aseh venishma– We will do and we will hear” (Shemot 24:7). The Talmud tells that this proclamation was so significant that Gd granted each member of the nation special spiritual “crowns” in response. The people were saying that first and foremost, before anything else, “na’aseh” – they were committed to obeying Gd’s word down to the very last detail, no questions asked. Then, after establishing this commitment, “nishma” – they would proceed to listen and learn, to eagerly plumb the depths of Torah wisdom and understand to the very best of their ability.
The Hebrew word for “reason” is ta’am, which, interestingly enough, also means “taste” or “flavor.” The reason for something is the “seasoning,” the “spice” which makes the act more enjoyable. Just as a person cannot have a satisfying meal consisting of just spices, likewise, we cannot base our religious observance solely on reason and rationale. The “food,” the essence of our commitment, must be complete and unbridled subservience to Gd’s authority. However, in order to ensure that the “food” is not bland and tasteless, and is instead exciting and a source of great joy and satisfaction, we must, as much as we can, add “seasoning” by learning and exploring so we understand what the mitzvot are all about.
This message is conveyed by the tefillin which men wear on their arms and heads each day. Halachah requires that the tefillin shel yad (the tefillin on the arm) must be worn anytime the tefillin shel rosh (tefillin on the head) is worn. Meaning, one must put the tefillin shel yad on the arm before placing the tefillin shel rosh on the head, and at the end of the prayer service, one must remove the tefillin shel rosh before removing the tefillin shel yad. The two parts of the tefillin represent the two areas of religious life – action and study. The tefillin shel yad is worn on the arm, symbolizing the actions and conduct required by the Torah, while the tefillin shel rosh, which is worn near the brain, symbolizes the pursuit of Torah knowledge in which we are to engage throughout our lives. Halachah requires wearing the arm tefillin whenever we wear the head tefillin because the primary component must be the actions. Studying is crucially important, but only after we are committed to acting in accordance with Torah law regardless of how much or how little we understand. The tefillin shel yad and tefillin shel rosh are both vitally important, but the tefillin shel yad must always come first.
Korah’s Tragic Mistake
Not coincidentally, the law of the red heifer is presented on the heels of one of the great tragedies in the Torah – Korah’s revolt. Korah audaciously led a rebellion against the authority of Moshe and Aharon, questioning their right to leadership and accusing them of pretending to be Gd’s messengers. His revolt resulted in his death as well as the death of many of his followers.
The Midrash describes how Korach launched his brazen attack. He and his followers dressed themselves in tallitot made entirely of techelet – the special dye that the Torah requires placing on one string of the tzitzit. (We have since lost the tradition identifying the source of the techelet, so we cannot observe this requirement nowadays.) Korah then asked Moshe whether such a tallit requires tzitzit. Moshe replied that it does, just like an ordinary tallit,whereupon Korah began ridiculing him. If one string of techelet suffices for an entirely white garment, he argued, then why should a garment made entirely of techelet require a techelet string? This does not make any sense. Korah then asked a similar question regarding the obligation of mezuzah, namely, whether a building filled with Torah scrolls requires a mezuzah. Moshe replied that it does, and Korah then retorted, “If a single piece of parchment suffices for an empty house, why should a house full of Torahs require a mezuzah?” If the purpose of a mezuzah is to have a piece of Torah by the entrance, then it seems illogical to require this if the house is filled with Torah books.
Korah’s fatal mistake was insisting that Torah law must conform to human logic and reasoning. He put the “na’aseh” after “nishma,” not before; he did not commit himself unconditionally to the divine will, and instead made his understanding a precondition for his acceptance of the mitzvot.
The law of the red heifer, the quintessential hok, is the Torah’s response to Korah. It reminds us that although we are urged to learn, study, probe and explore, we will always be left with questions. Our minds are limited, and so we cannot understand everything. Torah commitment requires acknowledging our limitations and subjugating ourselves to Gd’s law even when it defies human logic.
This is an especially vital message in today’s “information age,” when we are accustomed to getting answers to all questions on demand, when we expect to know everything about everything. The availability of information has made us cynical and suspicious, and has caused many to assume that we have answers for every question. The mitzvah of parah adumah does not practically apply nowadays when we live in exile without the Bet Hamikdash, but the message of this archetypal hokis more vital now than ever. We should find comfort and reassurance in the fact that even King Shlomo was unable to identify the rationale underlying this mitzvah. If he was able to live a committed religious life, to the point where he was endowed with ru’ah hakodesh(prophetic insight), despite not fully understanding all the Torah’s laws, then we, too, can live with unwavering devotion to Torah even when we have unanswered and unanswerable questions. We should follow his example in our own lives, and in educating our children, committing ourselves unquestioningly to every halachic detail, even as we commit ourselves to learn and understand as much as our limited human minds can.