Torah Insights for Shabbat
Bamidbar - Shavuot 5758
May 29, 1998
The fabled wise son of the Hagaddah notes the different categories of mitzvos -- eidos, chukim and mishpatim.
Eidos are testimonial commandments, reminders of great events in our history. Chukim are unexplainable, trans-rational commandments; they are observed simply because they are the law of G-d.
The third type, mishpatim , are the rational commands that every society subscribes to, such as honor your father and mother, have an honest business, treat people respectfully.
So obvious are mishpatim to any civilized society that one wonders: Why does the Torah need to identify them and place them on par with the other mitzvos?
As the nineteenth century was ending, man began to feel confident that he could solve all human problems. Diseases that had brought dread and death began to be cured. Science could boast of many successes.
But as the twentieth century comes to a close, man is not as confident. Walk on the moon? Easy. Transplant hearts? No problem. But define right from wrong, good from evil? Whoa. No easy answers to those.
The Ten Commandments include some obviously simple directives. Ask any kindergarten child and shell tell you, "Dont take someone elses crayon." "Dont hurt anyone."
Arent these commandments superfluous? Hardly. As science continues to answer many questions, it still can not demonstrate that killing and stealing are evil.
"Science makes no value judgments," we are told. This insight is a twentieth century product. How to make an atom bomb? No problem. Whether to drop it on a city? Thats someone elses decision, the scientist will say.
But dont scientists make moral decisions? Dont they have families, raise children? What values do they teach them? A scientist once told me, "Im a scientist two percent of the time. The rest of the time Im a slob like everyone else."
But the Jews have Sinai to turn to. What does Sinai say to the 21st century? There is good and there is evil, and man must not create his own moral code to distinguish between the two. Society can not determine good and evil. After all, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany were "societies." They had "codes." Everything the Nazis and Bolsheviks did was according to their "laws."
The Talmud says that mans evil impulse does not urge him at the outset to worship idols. Instead it breaks him down slowly. It says, "Do this," and the next day, "Do that," until it finally urges idolatry.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, zt"l, suggests that the yeitzer hara often begins by urging us to do mitzvos we agree with. We then become arbiters over what we do and come to violate those mitzvos we do not understand or agree with.
We can not be trusted to accurately ascertain right from wrong. Our definitions of right and wrong must instead come from a Source apart from man, higher than man. And that Source spoke to us through the Torah.
The wise son recognizes that every mitzvah, even the mishpatim, even the ones that seem so logical that they need no mention--"Do not kill;" "Do not steal"--need the Torahs imperative to be valid. Otherwise, they too will eventually be corrupted.
Rabbi Zalman I. Posner
Rabbi Posner is rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel Nashville, Tennessee.
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