Skip to main content

"Chok U Mishpat"

Harav Yehuda Amital

                Summarized by Ronnie Ziegler


            The gemara in Kiddushin (31a) recounts a story:


            "How far does the honor of parents extend?  Rav Eliezer replied, Go forth and see what a certain non-Jew named Dama ben Netina did in Ashkelon...  The Sages sought jewels for the efod, and were willing to pay him a profit of 600,000 gold dinars.  But since the key to the jewel-box was lying under his father's pillow, and his father was asleep, Dama did not trouble him.  The following year God gave him his reward: a para aduma (red heifer) was born to his herd.  When the Sages went to him to buy it, he said to them, 'I know that even if I asked you for all the money in the world, you would pay me.  But I ask of you only the money I lost for my father's honor.'"


            Why was he rewarded with a para aduma?  Kibbud av va-em (respecting one's parents) is a classic example of a comprehensible mitzva.  Para aduma, on the other hand, is the classic example of a mitzva which we cannot understand.  Even Shlomo Ha-Melekh, the wisest of men, said that comprehension of para aduma was beyond him.  What Dama ben Netina lost because of his observance of a rational mitzva, he gained because of a non-rational one.  While non-Jews can reach high levels of morality through observing rational commandments, Judaism adds a new dimension of holiness through the observance of divine commandments which we cannot always fathom.


            Western culture today, and especially American culture, is based upon personal autonomy and individual rights.  Judaism, however, recognizes that man is not totally autonomous - he is subject to God's will.  Therefore, Judaism focuses on duties instead of rights.  Furthermore, Judaism acknowledges that God's comprehension is beyond ours, and therefore we must obey His laws even when we do not understand them.  This is an especially important message in our day.


            Once I was approached by a couple who wished to become religious, but didn't know where to start.  I told them that in Parashat Beshalach we read that at Mara, three days after splitting the sea, "There He gave them law and statute" ("Sham sam lo chok u-mishpat" - Shemot 15:25).  Rashi explains, based on the gemara in Sanhedrin, that this means that God commanded the Jews to observe three mitzvot even BEFORE receiving the rest of the Torah at Sinai.  The three mitzvot were Shabbat, para aduma, and dinim (which Rashi later explains to refer to kibbud av va-em).  I advised them to follow the precedent in Parashat Beshalach:


1.  Start by observing Shabbat.  If it is too hard to be a Jew seven days a week, then try at least one day a week.


2.  Pick any mitzva bein adam le-chaveiro such as kibbud av va-em and observe it scrupulously.  It is important to stress that Halakha does not relate only to matters between man and God, but also legislates interpersonal ethics.


3.  Para aduma: you must choose a mitzva which you don’t understand and observe it as well.  One must realize that despite all the rationale behind the mitzvot, ultimately we cannot understand everything and we do not base our observance only on our rational appreciation of the mitzvot.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!