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15 Cheshvan 5766 - November 16, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Opinion & Comment
The Need to Conceal the Rationale of Mitzvos

by HaRav E. E. Dessler

[This shmuess was delivered at the Mashgiach's monthly shiur on Shabbos parshas Chukas 5764 and was recorded by someone in the audience.]

Part I

"Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying, `This is the chukah of the Torah that Hashem has commanded saying . . . ' " (Bamidbar 19:1). Rashi comments, "Since the Satan and other nations taunt Yisroel by asking them what is the meaning of this mitzvah and what is its rationale, the Torah writes chukah—it is a decree from Me and you are not allowed to seek its rationale."

What is the substance of the Torah's answer to other nations? What bothered them in the first place and how did the answer they received resolve that difficulty?

Surely, they were aware when they asked the question that HaKodosh Boruch Hu commanded bnei Yisroel to bring a poroh adumoh, and accordingly the answer did not supply any previously unknown information whatsoever.

What is even more amazing is that the posuk, "For it is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations, who shall hear all these chukim and shall say, `Surely a wise and discerning people is this great nation,'" (Devorim 4:6) openly teaches us that Yisroel are regarded as wise and understanding precisely because of the chukim that are beyond human comprehension. Non-Jews respect and think highly of the Jewish People because we have such chukim, and not vice versa. On the other hand, Rashi (whose source is the Medrash Tanchuma 7) writes that other nations harass Yisroel with criticism because of the chukim and they are the cause of their holding us in contempt and thinking little of us.

But why is this mitzvah at all called a chukah and, "a decree from Me and you are not allowed to seek its rationale"?

Actually we find that Chazal in the Medrash (cited in Rashi, Bamidbar 19:22) in the name of Rebbe Moshe the Darshan, and see also Droshos Ibn Shuiv and the yotzer of parshas Poroh) explicitly offer the following reason for the mitzvah of poroh adumoh: "HaKodosh Boruch Hu commanded bringing a poroh adumoh to atone for the episode of the eigel ( Shemos 32). This can be explained through a parable to a maidservant's son who dirtied the king's palace. The king said: `Let its mother come and clean up the stools.' Likewise HaKodosh Boruch Hu said: `Let the poroh come and atone for the episode of the eigel.' "

In addition, Chazal infer from the posuk, "Speak to bnei Yisroel and they shall take to you a completely red heifer," various allusions to the cheit ha'eigel. "`Take to you'—since bnei Yisroel demanded creating the eigel from their gold, now they should take [the poroh adumoh]. `To you'—since Moshe Rabbenu prayed to Hashem for bnei Yisroel, they must bring the poroh adumoh to him. `Red'—since the gold of the eigel was red. `Completely'—since they did not follow the Creator with a complete heart."

In several other places, Chazal clarify and specify how every detail of the bringing of the poroh adumoh atones for the cheit ha'eigel point by point. Since our Sages unambiguously point out the reasons for the poroh adumoh, why is it considered, "a decree from Me and you are not allowed to seek its rationale?"

It is, however, impossible to interpret the above Medrash using its obvious meaning. Rashi in Shemos (15:25, 24:3) writes on the posuk, "There He established for the nation a decree and an ordinance, and there He tested it," as follows: "Shabbos, poroh adumoh and dinim were given to them at Moroh." Hashem gave bnei Yisroel the mitzvah of poroh adumoh at Moroh, and that was immediately after splitting the Red Sea which was definitely before the cheit ha'eigel!

What Rashi writes stands in sharp contrast to the above- mentioned Medrash. It teaches us that HaKodosh Boruch Hu gave the parsha of poroh adumoh to atone for the cheit of the eigel, whereas Rashi writes that bnei Yisroel were given the mitzvah of poroh adumoh before they sinned with the cheit ha'eigel and not after.

The Or HaChaim (19:2) raises yet another point. Why concerning the mitzvah of bringing a poroh adumoh does the Torah write, "This is the chukah of the Torah"? Instead, the Torah should have written that the pesukim relate the chukah of that particular mitzvah, such as, "This is the chukah of the Pesach"(Shemos 12:43). In our case it could have written, "This is the chukah of tumah," or "This is the chukah of taharoh." Why does the posuk relate poroh adumoh to the entire Torah — "the chukah of the Torah"— and not just to its particular mitzvah?

Furthermore, the Or HaChaim (s.v. Asher tzivoh) asks, why does the Torah need to write the word "saying" (leimor) twice in the posuk, "Hashem spoke to Moshe and to Aharon, saying. This is the chukah of the Torah that Hashem has commanded saying . . . ?" After the Torah writes that Hashem spoke . . . saying, it is apparently superfluous to write, "This is the chukah . . . saying." With Hashem's help this will all be explained later on.


To better understand this matter, it is necessary to first introduce a salient principle that previous gedolei Torah [elaborated upon in the Beis HaLevi of HaRav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik ztvk'l on parshas Ki Siso] have bequeathed us. This principle clarifies our obligation to study Torah that Hashem gave us as a positive mitzvah, and explains how it should properly be carried out.

In birchos Krias Shema of Shacharis we daily implore Hashem, "to implant in our hearts to understand and shed light on, to listen, study and teach . . . all the words of Your Torah's teaching with love." Let us now define and delimit what is meant by "understanding and shedding light upon" our Torah study.

"R' Yitzchok said: Why were the reasons for the Torah's commandments ("Why is it forbidden to wear shatnez, eat pork and the such"—Rashi) not revealed? It is because two pesukim of the Torah revealed their reasons, and prominent people stumbled because of these disclosures.

"It is written, `And he shall not have too many wives, so that his heart not turn astray' (Devorim 17:17). Shlomoh said, `I will have many wives and will not turn astray.' However, we know that it says (Melochim I, 11:4), `So it was that when Shlomoh grew old his wives swayed his heart.'

"The Torah writes, `Only he shall not have too many horses for himself, so that he will not return the people to Egypt in order to increase horses' (Devorim 17:16), and Shlomoh said, `I will have many horses and will not return the people to Egypt.' And the posuk (Melochim I, 10:28- 29) however writes, `The source of Shlomoh's horses was from Egypt and Keveh . . . A chariot went out of Egypt for six hundred silver and horses for a hundred and fifty.' "

The gemora is showing us how dangerous it is to know the reasons behind the mitzvos, and this knowledge is, chas vesholom, liable to endanger those who know it.

(The Maharsha (ibid.) explains that the Torah reveals the reasons for these two mitzvos to teach us other issurim: through the Torah forbidding a king to marry many wives because it causes his heart to go astray, we understand that he is forbidden to marry even one wife who has the capability of causing his heart to stray. Furthermore, through the Torah forbidding a king having many horses so he will not return the people to Egypt to purchase horses, we infer that it is a mitzvah not to return to Egypt even not for the purpose of buying horses.)

For this reason our gedolei Torah distanced themselves from philosophical probing and searching after esoteric reasons for mitzvos. They refrained from delving into these reasons not only for the valid reason that this is inadvisable since this knowledge is secondary to other Torah knowledge. Esoteric reasons usually do not provide a firm clarification of correct Torah outlook and they lack any halachic implications (as publicly stated by eminent roshei yeshivos). The real reason is that employing such a method presents unquestionable risk to loyal Torah observance, as we clearly see in the gemora.

Rabbeinu, my uncle the author of the Michtav MeEliyohu, used to relate that he heard from Maran the Rov ztvk'l (HaRav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the rosh yeshiva of Ponovezh Yeshiva), that he remained overwhelmingly grateful to Maran HaRav Chaim Soloveitchik of Brisk ztvk'l, who taught him that when studying Torah one should not ask "why" (the reasons behind a mitzvah) but rather "what" (just clearly defining the mitzvah itself) (Sefer HaZichoron Michtav MeEliyohu II, pg. 31). Maran the Rov remarked that this Torah principle is worth all the wealth in the world! (The Rov's trip from Telz to meet HaRav Chaim of Brisk in fact cost him a small fortune.)

Maran Rabbeinu Yeruchom zt'l, the Mirrer Mashgiach, elaborates about this all-important principle: "The Torah knowledge that Osniel ben Kenaz restored through his pilpul did not consist of new concepts formulated through reasoning, but was actually a restoration of the old and the accepted. The same is true with studying the pshat of the Torah. Even though it can be comprehended only through profound study, its true comprehension cannot come solely by applying our intelligence. Not all our conclusions, even those based upon valid logical thinking, are to be considered truthful according to the Torah. Our thoughts are not those of the Torah!

"Before attempting to comprehend the Torah, we need to purify and refine our thoughts and make them conform to the Torah's measures and standards. We must continue adapting ourselves until our nefesh imbues within it the way the Torah thinks. Only through the radiance of the Torah will we see the real light. Only through daas Torah will we actually know the real truth, and every other truth is worthless. This daas Torah is obtained through tradition, from our rav, and our rav obtained it from his rav. Only from their waters do we drink and only their teachings have any value. Also, the tanna Rebbe Eliezer commented (Sotah 28a) about himself that he never said anything not previously heard from his rov. Can we, who do not even approach his level of Torah learning and tzidkus, possibly act differently?

"`R' Yitzchok said we have a tradition passed down to us through the generations that each of the meraglim (the spies sent in the Sinai Wilderness to spy out Eretz Yisroel) were named according to how they would act, but we grasp the meaning of only one . . . ' (Sotah 34b). Doubtless our Sages could conceive of various implications to the other names, but they said only what they had in tradition.

"This is what Hillel taught the non-Jew who demanded to be converted only on the condition that Hillel teach him the Written Torah without the Oral Torah. Hillel converted him. One day Hillel taught the new convert: `Alef, beis, gimmel.' The next day he reversed their order. The [amazed] new convert remarked to Hillel: `Yesterday you did not say it to me that way.' Hillel replied: `Do you not realize that you rely on me? So too you should rely on the Oral Torah' (Shabbos 31a).'

"Hillel instructs us in the necessity to follow our tradition. Both, the study of the Ma'aseh Merkovoh, one of the most arcane matters of the Torah, and beginning the study of alef beis, the basic foundation of knowledge that is taught to all children, are all from Hashem, and nothing can be attained without relying on tradition."

Shlomoh Hamelech, the wisest of all men (Melochim I, 5:10) teaches us: "All this I tested with wisdom; I thought I could become wise, but it is beyond me" (Koheles 7:23). Chazal (Bamidbar Rabbah 19) explain that Shlomo Hamelech, who knew the whole Torah, assumed that he knew all the reasons for the mitzvos until he reached parshas poroh that was beyond his comprehension. He could not grasp how the poroh adumoh could be both metamei the tehorim and metaheir the temei'im. This difficulty resulted in Shlomo Hamelech's drawing the conclusion that we not only are unable to comprehend the reason for poroh adumoh but likewise we are unable to comprehend the reason for all other mitzvos of the Torah.

Although initially Shlomo Hamelech thought, "I could become wise" in reference to all mitzvos, the mitzvah of poroh adumoh eventually convinced him that the wisdom of the whole Torah "is beyond me." [All of the mitzvos of the Torah are interlinked and lacking understanding for one of them shows a lack of understanding for them all].

The above is undoubtedly true about us. No matter to what extent we imagine that we understand the Torah, its hidden reasons are much more profound than what is revealed to us. The Torah is, "longer than the earth and wider than the sea" (Iyov 11:9)—much more lofty than the limited capability of a mortal's comprehension. [Accordingly, even when it appears reasonable to us that some change should be made since the reason for a certain mitzvah or issur has ceased to exist, we should nevertheless not stray an iota from the Torah's laws.]

End of Part I

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