Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Hukkim and Mishpatim

A post in honor of David Guttmann, whose thoughtful question motivated me to finally commit these ideas to writing.

It is well known that the commandments of the Torah are traditionally divided into two categories, "Hukkim" and "Mishpatim". Mitsvot that regulate social behavior and whose benefit to society is obvious are termed "Mishpatim". Examples of this include laws against theft and murder. By contrast, "Hukkim" are mitsvot whose purpose is not so easy to divine, such as laws against wearing wool and linen together or eating non-kosher foods.

On the surface, it is difficult to understand why this method of classification is justified. Does it make sense to categorize commandments simply based on whether we can provide a logical explanation for them or not? Isn't there a more meaningful criterion to use for grouping the mitsvot?

The Rambam, at the end of Hilchot Meilah, presents a lengthy discussion of the distinction between hukkim and mishpatim:

It is proper for a person to contemplate the laws of the Holy Torah and to grasp their purpose according to his ability. And something for which he cannot find a reason and he does not know a cause - it should not be light in his eyes...And his thinking about it should not be like his thinking regarding mundane matters. Look at how strict the Torah was with meilah (misappropriating items that were designated for the Temple.) Sticks, stones, dirt and ashes, once they had the name of the Master of the World called upon them, with words alone they become consecrated - and anyone who treats them as mundane commits sacrilege and even if he sins inadvertently, he requires atonement. How much more so a commandment that the Holy One, Blessed is He formulated for us...

Behold, it says in the Torah, "And you shall keep all of My statutes (hukkim) and My ordinances (mishpatim) and do them" The Rabbis said that this verse commands "keeping" and "doing" for the hukkim and mishpatim. "Doing" is obvious - it means performing the hukkim. And "keeping" means being careful with them, and not imagining that they are less than the mishpatim. And mishpatim are the commandments whose reason is obvious and the benefit of their fulfillment in this world is known, such as the prohibitions of theft, murder, and the commandment to respect parents. And the hukkim are commandments whose reason is not obvious...

And the inclination of man resists them, and the nations of the world argue against them - like the prohibition of pork or meat and milk, the commandment of the decapitated calf, the red heifer and the scapegoat. King David was terribly distressed over the fact that the heretics and idolaters rejected the hukkim. And the more they chased after him with false arguments that they formulated according to the frailty of the human intellect, the more King David became attached to the Torah...

And all of the sacrifices are included among the hukkim. The Rabbis say that it is because of the sacrificial service that the world continues to exist. For by virtue of the performance of the hukkim and mishpatim, the righteous earn a portion in the World to Come. And the Torah gave precedence to the fulfillment of the hukkim, as it says, "And you shall keep My statutes and My ordinances which a man does, and lives by them."

In these halachot, the Rambam seems to raise more questions than he answers. First of all, why does he launch into an elaborate analysis of hukkim and mishpatim at the end of Hilchot Meilah? Throughout the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam expounds upon every one of the 613 commandments - hukkim and mishpatim - yet he reserves his primary treatment of the topic of hukkim for this unusual context.

Second, what is the Rambam's essential point about hukkim? He mentions that they are scorned by the nations of the world, while at the same time emphasizing their overall superiority to mishpatim. It seems as if the Rambam maintains that the very fact that the gentiles ridicule the hukkim is proof of their importance. Why should this be the case?

And finally, if the arguments of the nations of the world against the hukkim are false, why doesn't King David refute them rather than ignoring them?

I believe that the concept the Rambam is identifying here is of crucial significance for a proper understanding of the Torah in general. Human beings have an intuitive sense of good and bad and right and wrong when it comes to matters of material importance. There is no question in our minds that these issues are very real and very serious. For this reason, all societies have laws that regulate commerce, prohibit murder and theft, and generally protect the physical welfare of their members. These laws - mishpatim - have a purpose that is manifestly obvious to the nations of the world, precisely because the values that mishpatim promote - i.e., material values - are acknowledged as significant by all people, everywhere.

This is what makes the hukkim seem so mysterious. Any search for a mundane explanation of hukkim would necessarily be in vain. This is because hukkim are not designed to promote the material welfare of the Jews and cannot be fathomed in that context. On the contrary, hukkim serve to facilitate intellectual and moral growth alone. Whether it is through restricting our instinctual gratification or directing our minds to the perception of God's hand in nature, the hukkim serve to move us closer to the philosophical goal for which we were divinely chosen.

From the perspective of the committed Jew, the hukkim are the very lifeblood of a meaningful, grounded, spiritually attuned existence. Yet they are rooted in ideals and principles that seem otherworldly and even counterintuitive to an outsider. Precisely because the benefit of hukkim cannot be explained in terms that make sense to a materialistic person, they are scorned and derided by the nations of the world.

Two examples will illustrate my point more clearly. The notion of an FDA that prohibits the sale of unhealthy or tainted food is comprehensible to anyone, because unhealthy food can harm the body, and all human beings value the condition of their bodies. By contrast, only individuals who strive for a good that transcends the physical can possibly appreciate the ideas exemplified in kashrut, which places a limit on hedonistic indulgence in order to increase spiritual growth.

Similarly, any person can grasp the benefit to be had from an education that prepares one to enter the workforce and make a living. However, only individuals who attach value to the metaphysical objectives of the Torah can possibly appreciate the beauty of Shabbat, a day dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake.

A pure pragmatist who thinks only in terms of physical pleasure, material gain and economic productivity will dismiss the hukkim as at best useless and at worst nonsensical. Within the framework of his value system, he simply cannot see the merit of rituals and restrictions that yield no concrete benefit whatsoever. This is why King David did not even try to defend the hukkim in the eyes of the world. He realized that the failure of his contemporaries to perceive the beauty of the hukkim was the result of the inherent poverty of their outlook on life. Their total commitment to materialistic priorities necessarily robbed the hukkim of any value in their eyes; they simply refused to attribute any substance to matters of the spirit.

Herein lies the connection between hukkim and meilah, or sacrifices in general. The concept of consecration is, by its very definition, a contradiction to materialistic sensibilities - it is an abstract, metaphysical phenomenon that nonetheless exerts a major influence on human behavior. The mere designation of an animal as a sacrifice suddenly removes a perfectly useful source of food or labor from the domain of human control, relegating it to Temple use. Thus, the very institution of sacrificial laws demands that we acknowledge the real existence of a realm of values and principles that transcends our personal and petty interests and even requires us to curb them - "once they have the name of the Master of the World called upon them...anyone who treats them as mundane commits sacrilege, etc."

We must recognize that there is a framework of tremendous significance and glorious beauty that lies totally outside of the world of the concrete and practical; namely, the framework of Divine Service. Once an item is consecrated and it enters that framework, it is placed outside of the reach of our pragmatic agendas, appetites and business plans. This makes the laws of sacrifices a perfect example of the ultimate objective of the hukkim - namely, to teach us that we must treat the spiritual with an even greater sense of reality and urgency than we typically associate with the physical.

Now we can fathom why the Rambam extols the hukkim above the mishpatim. Safeguarding the physical welfare of society is the most basic aim of any legal system; indeed, for most legal systems, it is the only aim. The Torah shares this objective and legislates mishpatim accordingly. However, with its introduction of the hukkim, the Torah demonstrates its uniqueness as a guide to human life. The hukkim do not enhance our mastery or our enjoyment of the physical world per se. If anything, they stand in the way of the endless pursuit of instinctual gratification and material wealth; indeed, their whole function is to contradict our natural inclination to measure goodness and substance in physical terms. They require us to pull our energies away from the concrete and channel them into the intellectual, metaphysical and transcendent.

This explains another unusual comment of the Rambam. In Pirkei Avot, we read:

Shimon the Righteous was one of the last of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say: On three things does the world stand: On Torah, on Divine Service, and on acts of lovingkindness.

The Rambam remarks:

He said that by virtue of knowledge (which is the Torah), and excellences of character (which are acts of lovingkindness), and fulfillment of the commandments (which are sacrifices), the design of the world and the harmony of its existence continues in the most perfect manner.

In light of our analysis here, we can understand why, for the Rambam, sacrifices are the ultimate example of "commandments" as distinct from "acts of lovingkindness." Acts of lovingkindness fall under the category of mishpatim - their benefit is understandable, even from a purely practical standpoint. After all, generosity of spirit and nobility of character foster peace, civility and harmony in society, and this is praiseworthy by any standard.

By contrast, hukkim ask us to break free from the narrow confines of the pragmatic and make the pursuit of knowledge, wisdom and sanctity our highest priority. This is best exemplified in the sacrifices. By definition, sacrifice involves the subordination of precious material resources to a metaphysical purpose that flies in the face of utilitarianism. As such, the sacrifices are the paradigm for all Divine Service. They differentiate the community of Israel, which strives to actualize its potential as a wise and understanding nation that sanctifies God's name from communities that measure their growth in terms of the Dow Jones industrial average and the Gross National Product.

A society that has mishpatim but lacks hukkim may develop wonderful methods for enhancing the "quality of life", all the while leaving its citizens in the dark when it comes to the purpose of life itself. This is a paradoxical situation that Einstein aptly described as a "perfection of means" coupled with a "confusion of ends."

Parashat Shekalim

This week, we append Parashat Shekalim to the regularly scheduled Torah reading. The Rabbis instituted the addition of Parashat Shekalim on or before the first day of the month of Adar in order to remind the Jews to bring their annual "half-shekel" contributions to the Temple before the month of Nissan rolled around. Why did the Rabbis choose to structure this "announcement" in the form of a Torah reading, rather than simply incorporating it into the Shabbat prayer service in some other way?

I believe that the fact that the Rabbis decreed that we must read the Parasha of Shekalim from a Sefer Torah shows that they wanted us to reflect upon the message of the "half-shekel" before fulfilling the mitsvah. By beginning the process of shekel collection with a public act of Torah study, the Jewish people are made aware of the importance of understanding the reason behind the commandment prior to performing it.

What is the core concept of the half-shekel that the Rabbis wished to emphasize? The notion that every Jew must "own" an equal share of the daily sacrifices in the Temple has profound theological implications. It derives from the uniquely Jewish view of atonement.

Within the framework of pagan religions, the appeasement of the gods is the key to securing divine favor. In that system, it matters little where the offerings are coming from. The idolatrous gods are imagined to be deeply concerned with receiving and enjoying generous tributes from human beings. In exchange for having their needs satisfied, the gods are willing to provide protection, grant blessings and answer prayers. This leaves open the possibility of vicarious or substitutionary atonement, in which a given individual can sacrifice his own wealth or life and thereby "entice" the gods to intercede on someone else's behalf.

By contrast, the Torah teaches that God gains nothing from our offerings. He is not interested in receiving any gifts from us; on the contrary, the activities we do to honor God are an expression of our own dedication and spiritual development, and it is this that makes us worthy in His eyes. Therefore, the mere fact that a sacrifice produces a savory aroma on the altar confers no benefit to me unless I participated in that sacrifice on some level - unless, in some sense, it is a function or a reflection of my own religious and moral commitments.

For this reason, the daily offerings in the Temple had to be purchased from the half-shekel contributions of the entire population. Only when the sacrifices actually come from the hearts and wallets of the Jewish people can they serve to secure atonement for the nation as a whole.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Doing Justice

Before moving on to study Parashat Mishpatim, let us conclude our analysis of the second of the two stories about Yitro that appear at the very beginning of last week's Parasha.

The Torah tells us that, the day after his epiphany about God's providence, Yitro found Moshe sitting and judging the Jewish people from morning till night. As the political leader of the nation and its prophet, Moshe handled every religious, administrative and judicial duty directly; he did not delegate. As a result, he was personally responsible for dealing with an enormous number of practical details and complications, ranging from the sublime to the trivial. (This was micromanagement at its worst - imagine if the Supreme Court were responsible for hearing every small claims or traffic court case in the country, and you'll get a sense of what it must have looked like!) The situation left Moshe overwhelmed, and proved a terribly frustrating experience for the Israelites who had to stand around all day long waiting for their cases to be heard. He was greatly disturbed by this and challenged Moshe:

What is this thing that you are doing to the people - why do you sit alone, while the entire nation stands before you from morning till evening?

Moshe acknowledged Yitro's question and responded:

Because the people come to me to seek God. When they have an issue, it comes to me, and I judge between a man and his fellow; and I make known to them the laws of God and His instructions.

Yitro is not satisfied with Moshe's answer, and persists:

You will be worn out - you and this nation that is with you - because the matter is too heavy for you, and you cannot do it alone. Listen to my voice, I shall advise you, and may God be with you - you should be the representative before God, and should bring the matters before God. And you shall inform them of the laws and instructions, and you shall make known to them the path that they should walk in and the actions that they shall do. And now, choose from among the people men of valor...

Yitro proceeds to suggest a structural reformation of the national leadership, in which responsibilities will be divided up among lower judges and only major questions will be addressed to Moshe. In this way, Moshe will avoid burnout, and the people will not become frustrated or resentful because of the need to wait for Moshe's response to every minor question.

Why is this story important to us? What does it teach us, and how does it connect to the passages that precede and follow it in the Torah?

One of the salient features of the narrative is the repeated use of the name "God", "Elokim", instead of Hashem, by both Moshe and Yitro. This key term links the current episode to the prior one (in reality, the Torah text presents them as one long narrative; they are not separated into different paragraphs). As you may remember, Yitro brought a sacrifice in the name of "Elokim" because his acknowledgment of God stemmed from his perception of the Divine justice that was meted out in Egypt.

Indeed, the theme of justice is the central motif of the reorganization of the judiciary as well. Moshe is involved in judging cases. Yitro notices that the manner in which Moshe is leading the people is unjust - it winds up being a disservice to Moshe and to his people. Based upon his own insight into the paths of justice, Yitro recommends a reformulation of the Israelite bureacracy that removes the "injustice" from its "justice system".

There is an even deeper layer of "justice" that is implicit in the story. Yitro is an outsider, he literally was "born yesterday", at least from the standpoint of membership in the Jewish community. Yet his critique and suggestions are taken seriously. In some circles, we might imagine Yitro's meddling being dismissed casually with statements like, "who do you think you are to be telling us how to run our nation? You arrived less than twenty-four hours ago and you already see fit to criticize how things are done around here?" Indeed, this is exactly the reaction Lot met with when he tried to intervene with the citizens of Sedom, the ultimate disciples of corruption.

Moshe's unhesitating acceptance of Yitro's words signifies justice in its own right - an attachment to the truth without bias or prejudice. The source of an insight is irrelevant to its validity, and whether it comes from within Jewish ranks or from the priest of Midian, it must be considered honestly and objectively before being evaluated.

The two stories about Yitro and their common emphasis on justice form the perfect introduction to the Revelation at Sinai. The creation of a covenant between Hashem and a particular nation can easily be interpreted as an expression of favoritism or as the establishment of an exclusive Jewish "club" with special rights to God's attention. This attitude, however, is gravely mistaken.

By placing the narrative of Yitro before the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Torah wishes to show us that it is, first and foremost, grounded in the principles of universal Divine justice. Any human being can arrive at true knowledge of God, attach him or herself to the Jewish people and partake of its unique ideas and way of life. Furthermore, Judaism reserves its praise for truth and truth alone; it leaves no room for prejudice or discrimination. Indeed, we see that even our greatest prophet responded humbly and graciously to the constructive criticism of a gentile priest.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Greater Than All The Gods

When Yitro (Jethro) hears of the unbelievable events that have recently transpired in Egypt, he immediately prepares himself to travel to the desert and reunite with his son-in-law Moshe. However, the actions he takes suggest that he is worried he may not be well received. First of all, he sends word to Moshe to inform him of his upcoming arrival, as if to "test the waters", as we read:

And Yitro said, "I, Yitro, your father-in-law, am coming to you - and your wife and her two sons with her.

Rashi highlights the insecurity that is implicit in these words:

If you will not come out for me, come for your wife; if not for your wife, at least come for your two children.

Why is Yitro apparently concerned that Moshe will not want to see him? After all, Moshe spent the better part of his life in his father-in-law's household, and the two men clearly had a positive relationship with one another. Indeed, when comissioned by Hashem to return to Egypt after his sojourn in Midian, Moshe first requests Yitro's permission to depart. Why does Yitro seem to believe that their close friendship has been compromised?

Examination of subsequent verses leads us straight to the answer. After receiving a detailed report of the Exodus and its attendant miracles, Yitro exclaims,

And Yitro rejoiced on all the good that Hashem had done for Israel; that He saved them from the hand of Egypt. And Yitro said, "Blessed is Hashem Who saved you from the hand of Egypt and from the hand of the Pharaoh; Who saved you from under the hand of Egypt.

Rashi notes that the Torah uses an unconventional term for "rejoiced", "vayihad." He cites a Midrash to elucidate this:

His flesh became covered in goosebumps because he was pained by the destruction of the Egyptians. Based upon this is the common saying, "One should not disparage a gentile in front of a convert, even after ten generations."

This observation of the Midrash provides us with an insight into Yitro's ambivalence about Moshe and the Exodus. On one hand, as a spiritual seeker, Yitro was impressed with the reports of Divine intervention in Egypt and wanted to fully comprehend their implications. The miracles attributed to the God of Israel put other deities to shame, and certainly warranted further investigation and study.

On the other hand, Yitro felt uncomfortable because he suddenly viewed himself as an "outsider" relative to Moshe. After all, these miracles had been performed on behalf of the Jewish people and their leader Moshe and had caused great suffering to Egypt, a gentile nation. Yitro, a non-Jew, identified with the Egyptians and wondered whether God's special concern for Israel excluded him by definition. Would Moshe want to have any further dealings with a person like Yitro? Was there any place for Yitro in a community that seemed favored by God only by virtue of its ancestral heritage - a heritage he did not share?

Despite his initial misgivings, Yitro had an intellectual breakthrough that changed everything for him:

Now I know that Hashem is greater than all other gods; for in this matter did they deal wickedly with them."

The commentaries explain that Yitro was deeply moved by the poetic justice of the miracles at the Sea. The very same instrument that the Egyptians attempted to use to annhilate Israel - the water into which they cast the Jewish babies - was the means God utilized to orchestrate their downfall. As the Midrash comments with a due measure of irony:

In the very pot they used to cook, they themselves were cooked.

What about this element of the miracle inspired Yitro to declare the superiority of Hashem to all other objects of worship? A consideration of the nature of pagan religion can shed light on this. Idolatrous gods were local gods who were believed to maintain highly exclusive relationships with the residents of "their" respective cities. Provided that a local god was worshipped with sufficient diligence, it could be expected to unquestioningly support its devotees in times of trouble, and to help them prevail over their enemies in war or conquest. In this sense, pagan gods were like cosmic politicians who championed the causes of special interest groups in exchange for "votes".

This is where Yitro perceived a stark contrast between the God of Israel and the gods of other nations. The God of Israel is a God of Justice who holds all of His creations to the same moral standard. The Egyptians suffered not because they were gentiles, and not even because they were enemies of the Jewish people, but because they were morally corrupt. The very mechanism of their destruction - the mighty waters of the Sea - sent a symbolic message to the Egyptians; namely, that their evil deeds, and not the arbitrary whims of a pagan deity, were responsible for the tragedies that befell them.

The lesson for us is clear: any group or nation that perpetrates injustice is equally culpable in the eyes of God, regardless of its religious, ethnic or racial background. Hashem's providence transcends nationalism, shows no favoritism and is untainted by partisanship. A relationship with Him must be earned and can neither be taken for granted nor can it be secured through bribery.

This universalistic dimension of Judaism was exactly what Yitro found so attractive. It meant that his concerns about being excluded or discriminated against were unfounded and that, despite his lack of Jewish blood, he could have a deep and satisfying connection to the God of Israel. Precisely because Hashem displays justice in His dealings with mankind as a whole, He makes Himself equally accessible to all human beings, not only to Jews. No individual or nation can claim exclusive rights to His providence.

Indeed, from earlier narratives in the Torah, we can see the important role that Yitro's love of justice played in his life. His passion for justice effectively laid the groundwork for the spiritual kinship he was able to form with Moshe in Midian.

When Moshe intervened to save one of his own brethren from an Egyptian oppressor, literally risking his own life to salvage another, the victim that he so boldly protected was tragically ungrateful. Instead of guarding the secret carefully and keeping the man who saved his life out of harm's way, the Hebrew slave put Moshe's life in jeopardy by spreading the news of what had happened. This was taken by Moshe as an indication that the Jews had become debased through their servitude and had lost their appreciation for the values of justice and charity. They would have seemingly been content betraying Moshe to the authorities in order to win favor with the Pharaoh; sadly, they had no regard for the moral significance of Moshe's heroic act.

By contrast, when Moshe saw the daughters of Yitro being harrassed by shepherds and courageously intervened to assist them, Yitro insisted, on principle, that his deed be recompensed. He enthusiastically invited Moshe for a meal in his home and eventually encouraged him to become a member of the family. Unlike the Jewish people in Egypt, Yitro not only acknowledged but deeply admired Moshe's pursuit of justice and forged a strong relationship with him on that basis.

The centrality of justice in Yitro's worldview explains another curious aspect of the first narrative about him. After expressing his newfound religious conviction in no uncertain terms, the Torah tells us:

And Yitro, the father-in-law of Moshe, took burnt offerings and peace offerings to God; and Aharon and all of the elders of Israel came to eat bread with the father-in-law of Moshe, before God.

This verse is remarkable because it breaks a Biblical "rule" that is identified by our Rabbis in the Midrash. Whenever sacrifices are discussed in the Torah, they are always dedicated to the four letter, proper name of Hashem, the Tetragrammaton (YKVK). We never find a sacrifice associated with the name "Elokim" ("God") in the Torah, except for the offerings of Yitro in this Parasha. Why does this story so obviously deviate from the pattern?

The four-letter name of Hashem refers to His unique, incomprehensible Being. When we offer sacrifices in the Temple, our primary objective is to emphasize the transcendence of God; therefore, sacrifices are generally linked to the Tetragrammaton.

The name "Elokim", on the other hand, connotes Hashem's role as the source of both natural and moral law. And, as we have seen, Yitro's understanding of Hashem was primarily rooted in his recognition and appreciation of the beauty of Divine justice. It was through the prism of the objective and universal moral order that Yitro discovered the One God of Israel. Therefore, it was fitting that Yitro's sacrifices be associated with the name "Elokim", which captured the aspect of God's Providence that was the main focus of his contemplation at that time.

In the next post, we will consider how Yitro's commitment to justice expresses itself in his critique of Moshe's leadership style. We will also gain a better sense of how these two stories are connected with one another and why they are presented in the Torah immediately prior to the Revelation at Sinai.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Genealogy and Chronology in Egypt

An excellent article by Harav Yaacov Meidan that discusses the population growth of the Jews in Egypt and the chronological difficulties it entails (link). I particularly enjoyed the piece because it dovetailed beautifully with a similar argument I advanced here.