Rabbi Milevsky's Thought of the Week: Acharei-Kedoshim - 5772

HUMAN ABILITY TO DISTINGUISH

     Before performing the majority of Mitzvot, we make a Bracha - a blessing.  Commentators wonder why on several of the important Mitzvot, like giving charity and honouring one’s parents,  no blessing is recited.  To resolve this issue we must differentiate between a mishpat and a chok.

    The human capacity to differentiate and discern is what distinguishes man from an animal. God placed all His myriad creations in the world to enhance man’s freedom of choice.  By exercising this freedom, for example eating those foods that the Torah permits and rejecting those that the Torah forbids, a Jew becomes holy, distinguished among the nations.  This is the import of the Torah statement “You shall set apart the ritually clean animal from the unclean and the ritually unclean bird from the clean... You shall thus be holy to Me, for I, God, am holy and I have set you apart from the nations to be mine.” (Vayikra 20:25-26)

    What does the Torah wish to add with the seemingly superfluous concluding words “liheyot li –to be mine”?  Rashi cites Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah: A person should never say, “The taste of pork repulses me; non-kosher foods taste terrible,” or, “I hate to wear Sha’atnez (a mixture of wool and linen); it’s uncomfortable.”  Rather, in these and similar cases a person should train himself to say, “I’d love to but what can I do? God commanded me not to.”

    We learn this from the words “I have set you apart from the nations to be Mine.”  Hashem says: “Keep the Mitzvot because it is My will, not because acting contrary to the Mitzvot is revolting or physically harmful in any way.”  Our separation from the nations has to be “liheyot li - lishmi”, for my sake because Hashem commanded us to do so.

    This, however, appears to contradict the view of Rabbi Yochanan, who teaches that man independently is able to be capable of differentiating between right and wrong, between good and bad.  Had the Torah never been given, said Rabbi Yochanan, we would have understood intuitively the value of such qualities as modesty, honesty and fidelity, that we would have learned them from nature; modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, fidelity from the dove and so on (Eruvin100b).  Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah seems to teach just the opposite.  Is a Jew guided to holiness by his inherent nature, or by the Torah - the declaration of Hashem’s will?

    Rambam answers this difficulty by pointing out the difference between a mishpat and a chokMishpatim are those laws that the human mind could conclude on its own like the prohibitions against stealing and immorality.  Chukim, on the other hand, are those laws which the human mind cannot derive on its own, but can know only because these laws are prescribed by the Torah, such as the prohibition of eating non-kosher food and the prohibition of wearing Sha’atnez.

    This, then, is the difference between the teaching of Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah.  Rabbi Yochanan refers to laws that represent a human quality; man practices them because he can know, through his own sense of reasoning, that they are true.  Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, on the other hand, refers to statutes; man practices them because God has commanded him to do so.  Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah warns against confusing the two, for the person who says he cannot stomach non-kosher foods reveals a flaw in his relationship with God.  God created chukimso that man might come to recognize Hashem through serving Him.  One who refrains from eating non-kosher because he assumes it to be the logical course of action, independent of the Torah’s command, misses the mark.  Such an attitude is lacking in the element of subservience that is necessary to bring one closer to God. 

    With the understanding that mishpatim are laws which the human mind could conclude on its own, we could answer our original question as to why no blessing is recited over giving charity and honouring one’s parents.  A blessing that declares “Vetzivanu – that You, Hashem, have commanded us” can only be made when the deed is done due to the commandment of God. Given that honouring one’s parents is a mishpat, in other words even without the command of God one would understand that parents are to be honoured, it would not be suitable to make a blessing declaring that one is honouring one’s parents solely because of God’s command. 

Shabbat Shalom