The Case for Restrictions – Part Four by Rabbi Chaim Jachter



In our previous issues, we discussed the importance and benefits of Hashem’s Mitzvot. Additionally, we explored certain Mitzvot, such as those which we fulfill at the Seder, and demonstrated how they clearly positively influence our lives. In this issue, we will begin by discussing Mitzvot whose benefits are not as easily detectible.

 Healthy Acceptance of Human Limitations

Human beings are capable of grasping the reasons for many Mitzvot. However, there are certain Mitzvot, classified as Chukim, that are either very difficult to understand or whose explanations rest beyond human comprehension[1]. Although Rambam (Hilchot Me’ilah 8:8) encourages us to explore the reasons for all Mitzvot, he cautions that just because one fails to discover the reason for a Mitzvah, he may not disregard or disparage the Mitzvah.

The Be’eir Yosef (Parashat Chukat) explains that there is great value to not comprehending every Mitzvah. Our adherence to Hashem’s commands even when we do not understand them helps us effectively manage our emotions if and when tragedy strikes (Rachamana LeTzlan). Observance of Chukim helps us recognize and internalize that human beings have limited intellectual capacity and are incapable of understanding all of God’s ways. Chukim train us to accept Hashem’s judgments, even those that appear unfair to us[2].

One may ask, however, why Hashem withholds information from us. This question is poignant especially in an age such as ours which aggressively asserts a right to know all. An answer to this momentous question emerges from Rav Soloveitchik’s vitally important essay entitled “Catharsis,” which we discussed in a prior issue at some length.

The central idea of this essay is that man is in need of redemption, which is accomplished by man advancing on the one hand and being prepared to withdraw on the other. We noted that Rav Soloveitchik identified four aspects of the human personality that require such refinement. The intellect is one of these four human traits that are in dire need of improvement.

Man is certainly encouraged, and even mandated, to explore and know as much as possible about this world[3]. This is true not only in regard to scientific endeavor but in regard to religious inquiry as well. The Gemara boldly discusses and develops Torah thought and Halachah to the extent of even boldly disagreeing with Hashem (Bava Metzia 59b). However, just as there are limits to scientific knowledge[4], there are limits to religious inquiry as well.

Humanity achieves its intellectual (and perhaps even religious) catharsis and redemption when it humbly acknowledges that it cannot understand the reason for Hashem’s every command and cannot justify all of God’s ways to man. When we humbly accept Yeshayahu’s teaching that “Lo Machshevotai Machshevoteichem, VeLo Darcheichem Derachai,” “My thoughts are not your thoughts and My actions are not as your actions” (Yeshayahu 55:8), we acknowledge that while we are partners with Hashem in Creation (Shabbat 10a), we are merely junior partners. Such healthy acceptance of our limitations ultimately allows man to flourish and develop his personality to the greatest extent possible. Failure to reconcile and accept such limitations can lead only to frustration, since man is fated to not know all.

Interestingly, Chazal (cited by Rashi Shemot 15:25 s.v. Sham Sam Lo) state that the first three Mitzvot that Hashem introduced to us after Keri’at Yam Suf (at Marah; in preparation for receiving the Torah at Har Sinai) were Kibbud Av VaEim (honoring parents), Shabbat and Parah Adumah. While it is understandable that Hashem would introduce Shabbat and Kibbud Av VaEim, since they are foundations of Torah life[5], why did He present Parah Adumah at Marah? It hardly seems to be an appropriate introduction to the Torah, which we were to receive in a few weeks.

An answer is that by introducing Parah Adumah at an early stage of our national development, Hashem communicated the basic and critical lesson that the human being must reconcile himself to the reality that he is incapable of comprehending everything.

Rav Yehuda Amital once told an assembly of Yeshivat Har Etzion alumni (meeting at Yeshiva University in 1986) that he guides those beginning on the path of Torah observance to follow the example Hashem set at Marah and to choose one Mitzvah that is between us and Hashem, one Mitzvah that is between people and other people and one Mitzvah that we do not understand. Rav Amital explained that both a Mitzvah between people and Hashem and a Mitzvah between people and people should be chosen, since the Torah is not only about bettering our connection with Hashem but improving our relationships with other people as well. He continued and stated that they should also choose a Mitzvah that they do not understand in order to help adjust their thinking to recognize that it is not necessary to understand every command of Hashem in order to function as a Jew.

Rav Amital presented an example of a plastic cup. He noted that we use it even if we do not understand how it is made and how it maintains its integrity. Similarly, Rav Amital explained, Parah Adumah teaches that we can and should observe Mitzvot even if we do not understand the reason for everything we do.

 Chinuch: Raising and Teaching Children to Love Being Jews

Rav Moshe Feinstein bemoaned the fact that many of the generation of European Orthodox Jews who came to the United States lost their children to religion because of a grave mistake they made in raising their children. Encountering the difficulties of being observant in "the New World," they raised their children with the dictate that "es iz shver tzu zein a Yid,” meaning that it is difficult to be a Jew[6]. They tried to implant in their children the willpower to serve Hashem even under trying conditions. While this may have worked in “the old country,” where all was essentially hard for everyone anyway, it was ineffective in North America, where the choice of living a difficult life as an observant Jew or living a life of "fun" as a non-observant Jew was readily available for everyone.

Instead, what they should have shown their children, said Rav Moshe, was the beauty and thrill of serving Hashem and observing His Mitzvot. They should have emphasized the happiness and the spiritual and emotional tranquility of the religious Jew as opposed to the confusion and instability that the non-observant person experiences. For example, enjoying Shabbat with the family brings countless blessings in this world. One who works on the Sabbath misses out on these tangible benefits in addition to the rewards in the World-to-Come for those who keep Shabbat[7]. Needless to say, it is similarly essential for Torah educators to present their Shiurim in a joyful manner that makes Torah learning attractive to their students[8].

Rav Moshe’s idea is hardly revolutionary. Our Tefillot are replete with similar ideas, such as, “VeHa’areiv Na Et Divrei Toratecha BeFinu,” “Ahuv VeNechmad HaDavar HaZeh Aleinu,” “Ashreinu Mah Tov Chelkeinu,” “Ivdu Et Hashem BeSimchah” and “Yismechu BeMalchutecha Shomerei Shabbat.”

Thus, instead of complaining about Torah restrictions, parents and educators should express their pleasure with the fact that Hashem has blessed us with them.


Next week, we will, God willing, continue our discussion of the importance of approaching Judaism joyously, and we will begin with a quote from Rav Efrem Goldberg which demonstrates the centrality and critical nature of being content and pleased by living a Torah life.

[1] The Rishonim disagree as to whether Chukim are merely difficult to understand (Rambam Moreh Nevuchim 3:31) or whether their reasons are known only to Hashem since they are beyond human comprehension (Rashi to BeMidbar 19:2).

[2] We bless Hashem on the bad just as we bless him on the good (Berachot 54a).

[3] This mandate emerges from Hashem’s command to Adam upon his creation, “VeChivshuha,” to conquer the world (BeReishit 1:28 with Ramban).

[4] In his analysis of “Catharsis,” Rav Reuven Ziegler explains, ( “In the scientific realm, cognitive catharsis implies recognizing the ultimate mystery of being. To begin with, we must recognize that every problem we solve engenders a more complex and inclusive problem than the first. This situation, while true of all scientific systems, takes on added significance in light of the indeterminacy principle, chaos theory, etc.”

[5] This is evident from their inclusion in the Aseret HaDiberot.

[6] It is wonderful to hear Yeshivah high school students correcting this terrible error when they sing a newly popular song, “Geshmack to be a Yid!” (it is delicious to be a Jew).

[7] In my experience, Sephardic Jews do not complain about reciting Selichot throughout Chodesh Elul. They communicate to their families their delight in reciting the joyful and interactive Sephardic style Selichot.

[8] The Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 4:11) cites a stunning statement from Reish Lakish that “Whoever presents Divrei Torah and they are not pleasant like a Kallah is to her Chatan at their Chuppah, it is better that he not say them.” 

The Case for Restrictions – Part Five by Rabbi Chaim Jachter

The Case for Restrictions – Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter