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The Two Faces of A Mitzvah

The Two Faces of A Mitzvah

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If you follow My decrees and observe My commandments...
-Leviticus 26:3

Generally speaking, the commandments are divided into two categories: supra rational "decrees" (chukkim) and logical "judgments" (mishpatim).

There are commandments, such as the commandment to give charity or the prohíbitions against theft and murder, whose reason and utility are understandable to us, and which we would arguably have instituted on our own if G-d had not commanded them; and there are commandments, such as the dietary laws or the laws of family purity, which we accept as Divine decrees, despite their incomprehensibility and in the most extreme of chukkim - their irrationality.

But the Torah also refers to all commandments as "decrees" (as in the verse quoted above), and uses the term "judgments" to refer to suprarational commandments as well.

Chassidic teaching explains that, in essence, every mitzvah is both a "decree" and a “judgment."

G-d created the human mind and the logic by which it operates; obvíously, then, it would be nothing less than ridiculous to assume that G-d desires something because it is logical. Rather, the reverse is true: something is logical because G-d desires ít. In other words, the reason the commandment "Do not kill" is logical to us is that G-d desired a world in which life is sacred, and molded our mínds in accordance with His vision of reality.

In essence, however, "Do not kill" is no more logical than the commandment to sprinkle the ashes of the Red Heífer upon someone who has been ritually contaminated through contact with a corpse. So the rationalíty of the commandment "Do not kill" is but an external "garment" behind which lies the mitzvah's essential nature as the supra-rational will of G-d.

On the other hand, even the most irrational "decree" has its rational elements - elements that can be analyzed by the human mind and appreciated by ít as a lesson in life. As Maimonides writes, "Although all the chukkím of the Torah are supra-rational decrees ... it is fitting to contemplate them, and whatever can be explained, should be explained."

Thus, every mitzvah - whether categorized as a "decree" or "judgment" - is basically a supra-rational decree which can nevertheless be experienced as an illuminating guide to life. Every mitzvah is an act of submission to the Divine will, an act that recognizes that our finite minds cannot fathom the axioms that are the basis of our reality and must ultimately accept them on faith from their Divine conceiver.

At the same time, every mitzvah is a rational act in the sense that it relates to our rational selves and aids us to achieve a better understanding of our nature and our purpose in life.

The only dífference between chukkim and míshpatim is in which of these two elements dominates: the "decree" emphasizes the suprarationality of our commitment to G-d, while the "judgment" stresses the functíon of the commandments as educators and enlighteners of human life.

The Wise Son's Question

This is the deeper significance of the Wise Son's question, "What are the testimonials, decrees and judgments (eidot, chukkim and mishpatim) that G-d commanded you?" Why the need for different types of commandments, the Wise Son is asking, characterized by varying degrees of rationality? What can be more significant and more meaníngful than the simple fact that one fulfills a Divine command?

To answer the Wise Son's question, the Passover Haggadah says to "tell him the procedures of the Passover [offering, including the law that] after eating the Passover offering, one may not conclude the meal with a dessert."

"Passover," so named after G-d's passing over all norms to redeem His people, represents the transcendence of the natural and the reasonable in our relationship with G-d.

But "Passover," too, has its "procedures." Also the loftiest, most supra-rational truths are to be incorporated into our natural existence, an existence characterized by logical laws and rational processes.

Indeed, we continue to explain to the Wise Son, the law is that, "After eating the Passover offering, one may not conclude the meal with a dessert," for the taste of the Passover offering should linger in our mouths.

Also the reason-transcending "Passover" aspect of our relationship with G-d should impart a "taste"-an intellectual and emotional savor-to the palate of the soul.

Thus the Torah includes "decrees," "testimonials" and "laws." For though it is in essence a Divine decree, it is to be experienced as a program for life that addresses our every plane of being, from its technical-logical aspects to our capacity to abnegate reason in subservience to the Divine will.

Furthermore, not only does the Torah include both "judgments" and "decrees," but also its most supra-rational decree can, and should, be assimílated by our thinking and feeling selves as a source of enlightenment and feeling.

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