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Finding Reasons for the Mitzvot

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion





Para Aduma - Finding Reasons for the Mitzvot

Summarized by Matan Gildai

Translated by David Silverberg


The laws of the "para aduma" (red heifer) are known to be one of those areas which come under attack by the nations of the world and the evil inclination. The Midrash (in Parashat Chukat) identifies two specific problems latent within the institution of the para aduma that invite criticism from the various forces without. First, the evil inclination points to an inherent contradiction regarding the red heifer - although its function is to purify, it renders impure anyone who comes in contact with it. The Midrash (Bemidbar Rabba 19:5) lists this halakha as one of the five instances in the Torah when such an apparent contradiction arises.

The continuation of the Midrash (19:8), however, deals with a basic conceptual problem with the para aduma, going beyond this contradiction:

"A certain gentile asked Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai, 'These things that you do appear to be some sort of sorcery! You bring a cow, burn it, crush it, take its ashes, sprinkle on one who had been defiled by contact with a dead body two or three drops, and then tell him that he is pure!'

[R. Yochanan] answered him, 'Have you ever seen one who was stricken by the force of lichen?'

[The gentile] said to him, 'Yes.'

[R. Yochanan] said, 'And what do they do for him?'

[The gentile] said to him, 'They bring roots [of a plant], smoke them underneath him, pour water, and it [i.e. the illness] runs away.'

[R. Yochanan] said to him, 'Your ears should hear what comes forth from your mouth! This force is impurity… They sprinkle upon it purifying waters, and it runs away…'

After [the gentile] left, the students asked [Rabban Yochanan], 'Our rabbi, him you dismissed easily; but what do you say to us?'

He said to them, 'I swear that the corpse does not defile and the waters do not purify. But the Almighty said: I instituted a statute, I issued a decree, and you are forbidden to violate My decrees.'"

The gentile sought the practical basis of the efficacy of the para aduma. He assumed that every mitzva must serve a concrete purpose, and one does not fulfill a mitzva whose practical benefit he does not understand. Recognizing his challenger's presuppositions, Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai responded along the lines of these mistaken notions and defended the practical benefit of sprinkling the purifying waters of the red heifer.

While this sufficed for the gentile questioner, the students were unsatisfied for two reasons. Firstly, they were proficient in all details of Halakha and knew that practical explanations cannot be given for all halakhot. Although one can claim that a particular mitzva has a practical benefit (e.g. the nutritional value of kosher food, the hygienic benefit of the laws of nidda), one can never rationalize all the details of Halakha by following this approach. Secondly, these explanations downsize the significance of the mitzvot; they turn the Torah into a helpful health guide and strip the mitzvot of their intrinsic value.

Indeed, Rabban Yochanan responded that one can never properly understand the underlying reason behind the institution of para aduma. The system of mitzvot is divine in origin, and as such we have no need to unearth the practical benefit of each mitzva. This is also the position of the Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim III:26), who maintains that although we may ascertain the rationale behind the generalities of mitzvot, we will never arrive at the reasons behind all the details therein. As the midrash teaches (Bereishit Rabba 44:1),

"Does the Almighty care whether one slaughters from the front of the neck or the back? We must conclude that the mitzvot were given only to cleanse the human being."

Judaism believes in the utilitarian quality of mitzvot, namely, that they sanctify body and soul. As opposed to secularism, Judaism maintains a distinction between sacred and profane actions, just as it differentiates between sacred and non-sacred locations and times. We may even unearth the rationale behind some of the details, but regarding many others we will never discover the reasons. We must view them as decrees and statutes established by the Almighty, and observe each detail, with all its minutiae, regardless of what we understand and what we don't.

True, when we attempt to explain the mitzvot and their reasoning to the non-religious, we may offer functional explanations to which they can relate and which they can understand. Nevertheless, caution must be exercised in this regard, and excessive use of these rationalizations ought to be avoided. Firstly, too much explanation of this type may prompt the non-observant person to conduct a thorough inquiry into all the details and thereby contradict our responses. Secondly, indulgence in functional rationalization may lead us to convince ourselves that these indeed constitute the ultimate reasons behind the mitzvot. Ultimately, whether or not we perceive the benefit of the mitzvot, we are commanded beings, and questions of practical benefit are not of the essence.

(Originally delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Para 5755 [1995].)




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