Amitai Ben Nun
Former Shalaich in Cape Town
“And these (v’eleh) are the ordinances (mishpatim)that you shall put before them.” (Shmot 21:1)
“Wherever it says “these” (eleh) it negated that which has been stated previously. “And these” (v’eleh) it adds to what has been stated previously. Just as those which have been stated previously are from Sinai, so too, these are from Sinai.” (Rashi ibid)
What are Chazal trying to teach us? We know that the entire Torah was given at Sinai. For instance, with respect to shmitah, Chazal say:
“All its general rules and details are from Sinai.” (Rashi – Vayikra 25:1)
Why do Chazal need to specify that the mishpatim are also from Sinai?
The answer is that the mishpatim, which comprise an ordered social way-of-life, are logical and rational. At first glance, they do not appear to resemble the chukim (laws), which are mitzvot without obvious and revealed reasons. However, Chazal are showing us that even the mishpatim are from Sinai. Moreover, both the chukim and the mishpatim encompass Divine secrets.
Our rabbanim famously distinguished between mitzvot sichliyot (loosely, rational mitzvot – i.e. mitzvot with logical reasons and explanations) and mitzvot shimiyot (literally, mitzvot which are “heard” and observed –i.e. chukim). Although many of ourrabbanim devoted considerable effort to finding rational reasons for the mitzvot, the underlying approach to mitzvah observance must not be denied: We do not observe mitzvot simply because they are comprehensible to our intellects. Our understanding of the mitzvot is irrelevant. An oved Hashem (one who serves Hashem) accepts the yoke of mitzvot unconditionally – whether or not he comprehends them. The existence of a rational explanation is an added benefit which enhances one’s avodat Hashem but is not a necessary condition for it.
This idea is illustrated by a story in the Gemara (BT Kiddushin 31a) which states:
“Go and see what one idolater did for his father in Ashkelon, and Dama ben Netinah was his name. The chachamim (Sages) requested stones for the ephod from him at a profit of six hundred thousand… But the key was lying under his father’s head, and he did not disturb him. The next year, HaKadosh Baruch Hu gave his reward, since a parah adumah (red heifer) was born in his herd. The chachmei Yisrael came to him. He said to them, ‘I know about you that if I request all the money in the world, you would give it to me. But I am requesting from you only the money that I lost because of honoring [my] father.’”
Why was Dama ben Netinah specifically rewarded with a parah adumah? Our commentators explain that HaKadosh Baruch Hu is hinting to us that – contrary to popular belief – kibbud av va’em (honoring one’s parents) is not solely a rational mitzvah based on gratitude. Rather, kibbud av va’em must be observed whether or not one understands the mitzvah’s reason – just as one observes the mitzvah of parah adumah, which is a chok. Furthermore, every other mitzvah must also be observed regardless of whether or not one grasps the mitzvah’s underlying message or internal and Divine substance. No matter what, we must constantly strive to serve the Creator’s Will.
May we be privileged to serve our Creator earnestly and with sincerity.