Hashem’s Laws, Not Theirs by Josh Finkelstein


As Parashat Acharei Mot describes, Hashem instructs Moshe to tell Bnei Yisrael, “KeMa’aseih Eretz Mitzrayim Asher Yeshavtem Bah Lo Ta’asu UChMa’aseih Eretz Kena’an Asher Ani Meivi Etchem Shamah Lo Ta’asu UVChukoteihem Lo Teileichu,” “Do not perform the practices of the land of Egypt in which you dwelled; and do not perform the practices of the land of Kena’an to which I bring you, and do not follow their traditions” (VaYikra 18:3). Hashem issues the nation this warning because it must be alert to the possibility of being lured to sin by non-Jewish neighbors. It is very easy to justify acting on temptation and committing sins on the basis of “Everyone else is doing it!” Hashem issues us a special warning that this rationalization is invalid; we must remain separate from the improper acts of the society around us.

Hashem warns Bnei Yisrael not only of the practices of Egypt and Kena’an, but also of their “Chukot.” Bnei Yisrael must be sure to avoid the customs that have made the different non-Jewish cultures unique. Sifra, the Midrash on VaYikra, adds that the prohibition of following the Chukot of these non-Jewish nations includes adopting their dress and immoral practices. According to Sifra’s interpretation of this commandment, how can we justify how many of us dress today in America? What gives us the right to walk down the street wearing Western clothing?

Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that we may imitate the nations around us regarding only the items that they have adopted on a rational basis, for example, dress. The prohibition applies to irrational practices that foreign nations have accepted, such as religious or immoral practices. Therefore, we may not, obviously, join in celebration of their holy days, but dressing like the non-Jews, as long as we maintain our modesty, would be acceptable.

Once we understand that we should not follow the laws of the nations around us, what laws should we follow? The next Pasuk explains, “Et Mishpatai Ta’asu VeEt Chukotai Tishmeru LaLechet Bahem Ani Hashem Elokeichem,” “Carry out my laws (Mishpatai) and safeguard my decrees (Chukotai) to follow them; I am Hashem, your God” (18:4). Why does Hashem specify the words “Mishpatai” and “Chukotai,” instead of issuing a more general command to follow Mitzvot?

As Rashi explains, laws (Mishpatim) would have been dictated by reason and logic even if Hashem had not commanded them. Examples of such commandments include the prohibitions of murder, idolatry, and theft. However, a decree (Chok) is any law or prohibition that is unexplainable. Chukim include forbidden meat and the prohibition of Sha’atneiz. Because these laws are beyond human comprehension, the Pasuk concludes with the statement, “I am Hashem, your God.” These are Hashem’s decrees, and it is not our job to decide whether these laws make sense or not.

We must be careful not to follow the irrational customs of the non-Jewish nations of the world. However, we must also understand that not all of our laws make sense to the human mind. We must recognize that it is Hashem’s place, not ours, to deem a Mitzvah logical or not. We are called upon to trust in Hashem and follow Him, whether or not we understand everything He places before us.

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