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Torah Attitude: Parashas Chukas: Rational laws and Divine decrees
Despite the great profit he could have made on the sale of precious stones needed for the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol, Doma decided not to disturb his father. "If someone claims that there is wisdom by the nations, believe him." Anyone can understand the logic behind honouring one's parents. When Eisav would serve his father he would wear special royal garments. "Come and let us make an eternal reckoning. Let us weigh the loss sustained when performing a commandment against the reward for the commandment, and the gain of transgressing a prohibition against its loss." How much greater is the obligation of the Jewish people to be ready to give up personal gain to honour our parents. As opposed to the rational laws that every decent human being understands the need for, the decrees of the Torah are, in general, beyond human understanding. The introduction to the laws of the red cow teaches us to accept all commandments as Divine decrees. Despite our inability to fathom the complete rationale behind any of the commandments, nevertheless we are obligated to investigate and analyze them to the best of our ability.
Honour one's parents
The Talmud (Kiddushin 31a) relates that Rabbi Eliezer was once asked to what extent one is obligated to honour one's parents. Rabbi Eliezer answered, "Go and have a look at the gentile Doma ben Netinah from Ashkelon how he treated his father." Rabbi Eliezer continued and told how the sages came to Doma and requested him to sell them some precious stones needed for the breastplate of the Kohen Gadol [High Priest] estimated at the value of between 600,000 and 800,000 golden dinars. However, just then Doma's father was sleeping and the key for the treasure cabinet was hidden under the father's pillow. Despite the great profit he could have made on this deal, Doma decided not to disturb his father. The following year G'd rewarded this righteous gentile with the birth of a red cow. Again, the sages approached him to negotiate a deal to buy his red cow to be used for the special process of purification mentioned at the beginning of this week's Torah portion (Bamidbar 19:1-10). When Doma saw the sages he said to them, "I am well aware that you would be ready to pay any price I would ask for this red cow. However, I won't ask for more than the amount that I lost last year when I honoured my father." In regards to this amazing conduct, Rabbi Chanina commented, "If someone who is not obligated by the Torah to honour his father goes to this extent, how much more is this expected of those who the Torah obligates to honour their father."
Wisdom by the nations
It is interesting to note that the Talmud brings an example of proper honour of parents from the conduct of a gentile. This is similar to how the Torah in the beginning of Parashas Yisro relates how Yisro, who at the time was a gentile, taught Moses how to establish the judicial system in the wilderness. Both the written and oral Torah in this way exemplifies what the Midrash Rabba (Eichah 2:13) teaches: "If someone claims that there is wisdom by the nations, believe him."
However, while it is understandable that G'd rewarded a righteous gentile such as Doma, why did G'd choose to reward him with a rare, priceless red cow. G'd could have used any means to bless him with great wealth. The answer may be that G'd wanted to show the distinct difference between the commandments that all of mankind can be expected to fulfill and the commandments specifically given to the Jewish people. Anyone can understand the logic behind honouring one's parents. As the parents have brought the child into this world and continuously provide it with all its needs, it is definitely logical to expect that the child honour its parents. This is similar to the seven Noachide commandments, such as the prohibitions against murder, robbery, etc., that are the basis of any civilized society. These commandments belong in the category of rational laws. And our sages explain that had these commandments not be mentioned in the Torah one would still be expected to practice them (see Rashi Vayikra 18:4).
Eisav's special garments
Even Eisav understood the obligation to honour one's parents. The Yalkut Shimoni (Parashas Toldos para.115) explains various reasons why Eisav kept some special garments in the house of his parents (see Bereishis 27:15). The Yalkut quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel who exclaimed, "All my life I have been looking after my father but I did not take care of him even one percent of how the wicked Eisav looked after his father. When I served my father I served him in my regular working clothes. But when I had to go out to do business, I would change into a clean set of garments. However, when Eisav would serve his father he would wear special royal garments."
Doma appreciated his moral obligation to treat his father with honour and respect. He even understood that one should be ready to suffer financial loss to do what is proper. As our sages (Bava Basra 78b) interpret the poetic verse towards the end of this week's portion (Bamidbar 21:27 - see Torah Attitude: Parashas Chukas/Balak: Eternal reckoning, July 6, 2006) "Come and let us make an eternal reckoning. Let us weigh the loss sustained when performing a commandment against the reward for the commandment, and the gain of transgressing a prohibition against its loss. If you conduct yourself in this way, you [i.e. your life] will be built in this world and established in the World to Come."
With this we can better understand the comment of Rabbi Chanina. Doma was not commanded by Torah law to honour his parents, and would only have a limited reward; yet he was ready to sacrifice such a huge profit. The Jewish people, on the other hand, are commanded by Torah law to honour our parents and we will be rewarded accordingly. How much greater is our obligation to be ready to give up personal gain to honour our parents.
Beyond human understanding
However, whereas anyone can be expected to fulfill a rational law, the Jewish people are expected to go one step further. At the beginning of this week's portion, the Torah introduces the laws of the red cow by stating (Bamidbar 19:2) "This is the decree of the Torah." As opposed to the rational laws that every decent human being understands the need for, the decrees of the Torah are, in general, beyond human understanding. They include such laws as the prohibition against mixing milk and meat in the kosher diet, and the prohibition of wearing garments with a mixture of wool and linen. Sometimes we may gain a partial understanding of some of these decrees when we delve into the laws of the Torah and the reasons behind them. But by the decree of the red cow, even the smartest of all people, King Solomon, admitted that the rationale behind this decree was beyond him. The Midrash Rabba (16:3) explains that when King Solomon said (Koheles 7:23) "I thought I could become wise but it is beyond me", he was referring to the laws of the red cow.
Tip of the iceberg
The commentators (Rabbi Moishe Feinstein and others) ask why is the introduction to the laws of the red cow described as "the decree of the Torah"? It would seem to be more appropriate to describe it as the laws of purification as this was what the ashes of the red cow were used for. They answer that with this expression the Torah is hinting at a vital message how to approach all the commandments. This introduction teaches us to accept all commandments as Divine decrees, as the Talmud (Berachos 33b) explains in regards to the commandment of sending away the mother bird before taking her eggs or chicks for personal use (Devarim 22:7). We must realize that it is beyond us to fully comprehend the rationale behind any of the commandments. Even the ones that seem logical to us, in truth we are really only seeing the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface of what we comprehend there is a lot more that most of us are not even aware of. The commentaries explain that when King Solomon said "it is beyond me" he did not only refer to the law of the red cow, but rather to all the laws of the Torah. King Solomon reasoned that if he could not fathom this law of the red cow, he must suspect that his understanding of the other laws may not be complete. As the author of Sefer HaChinuch writes in his introduction to his great work, where he reviews each of the 613 commandments and gives a brief description of the laws and the rationale behind each of them. He clearly explains that he does not dare to suggest that he is able to give over the complete explanation for even one of the commandments.
Privilege to understand
This does not mean that we should refrain from studying the rationale behind the commandments. On the contrary, the Rambam writes at the end of the laws of Me'ilah (dealing with the prohibition of having personal benefit from anything that belongs to the Temple) that despite our inability to fathom the complete rationale behind any of the commandments, nevertheless we are obligated to investigate and analyze them to the best of our ability. This is part of the privilege and obligation G'd gave the Jewish people in order to give us the ability to understand the laws of the Torah and the rationale behind them as far as humanly possible.
These words were based on a talk given by Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shema Yisrael Torah Network