The 'Reasons' For the Commandments
The Torah portion begins "this is the statute (chok) of the Torah" and proceeds to discuss the laws of the red heifer (Parah Adumah), a mitzvah which is impossible to understand according to human logic. The Ohr HaChaim asks why this mitzvah is called the 'chok of the Torah;' it would have been more appropriate to say 'this is the chok of purity' because it relate to the laws of purity and impurity?
He answers that the Torah is alluding to us that if we fulfill this mitzvah even though it has no reason to it, then the Torah considers it as if we have fulfilled the whole Torah, because it shows that we are willing to follow God's will unconditionally.(1)
Rabbi Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that when a person fulfils a mitzvah that has an obvious reason to it, it is still not clear that he is prepared to fulfill the Torah purely because God commanded it. It could be that he is doing it because it makes sense to him. However, once he performs a Mitzvah that is without obvious logic that proves that he keeps all the mitzvot, not because they make sense to him, but because God commanded them.(2)
This is a fundamental principle of the Torah - we accept that we must follow God's will without making calculations according to our own logic. It demonstrates that we acknowledge that God's wisdom is beyond our own and that there are reasons behind His commandments. Once we recognize in our own minds that there is an All-Powerful God who gave the Torah at Mount Sinai then we should be willing to accept the mitzvot that are included in that Torah. The fact that we cannot always fathom those reasons does not mean that they do not make sense.
In light of this principle, a difficulty arises: Many of the greatest Torah scholars such as the Rambam, Sefer HaChinuch and, more recently, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch went to great lengths to explain the 'reasons' behind the mitzvot. Yet it is clear from the Red Heifer that the ultimate reason behind each mitzvah is beyond human understanding; King Solomon had thought that he understood the deepest reason for every mitzvah until he came to the Red Heifer which he could not fathom. He then realized that he did not truly understand the definitive reason for any of the mitzvot. In light of this, how can anyone claim to understand a 'reason' for any given mitzvah if King Solomon, the wisest man, could not?!
Rabbi Yitzchak Bervkovits answers by explaining that the commentaries are not claiming to understand the ultimate reason behind the mitzvah - we can have no concept of the genuine reason for any mitzvah - that is something that belongs in the highest spiritual worlds. However, this does not mean that the reasons given for the mitzvot have no truth to them. God, in His Infinite wisdom 'arranged' it so that each mitzvah can make sense on many different levels of existence. For example they can help a person develop desirable character traits and can enhance relationships.
We see this in many mitzvot: The laws of purity and impurity are among the most difficult to fathom. However, the most relevant of these laws today, those that relate to family purity, has obvious benefits. The Talmud explains that it is very beneficial for husband and wife to separate for a certain time every month so that they can avoid the problem of lack of excitement in the relationship.(3) Based on this, the Sefer Hachinuch writes that this advantage is one of the reasons for the mitzvah of family purity.(4) This does not mean that the reason we keep the laws of family purity is because it helps one's relationship, however, it is no co-incidence that it does so for God clearly 'intended' it to be that way.
Another example of this is the mitzvah to slaughter kosher animals (known as shechita) in a specific manner. The Ramban writes that it does not affect God whether we kill an animal by shechita or by strangling. However, God instructed us to kill the animal in the least cruel way in order to teach us the character trait of mercy even at the time of killing.(5) Again this does not mean that we slaughter animals the way we do because it will help us be more merciful, we do it that way purely because God commanded us to. Nevertheless this does not take away from the fact that God also intended for us to develop favorable character traits through observing the mitzvot.
Thus, notwithstanding the fact that we cannot fathom the ultimate reason for the mitzvot, we can nonetheless understand reasons to the mitzvot that are true on a certain level. With this understanding we can now appreciate why the commentaries held it was so important to teach us various reasons for the Commandments. It is true that we keep the mitzvot because God instructed us to, however, it is not sufficient that we merely do the Mitzvah robotically, without any thought as to what we are doing. Mitzvot are intended to change us into better people, and the way that they do this is through the reasons being the mitzvot. The Sefer Hachinuch tells us the root reason for every mitzvah - why? So that we can have an idea of what we are supposed to gain from performing this mitzvah and we can work towards achieving that benefit.
The prohibition of lashon hara (negative speech) demonstrates this idea. Rabbeinu Yonah explains the reason of this prohibition with a story. A wise man was walking with his students when they came across the corpse of a dead dog. One of the students commented on how disgusting this corpse was. The wise man replied that it had very nice, white teeth.(6) He was teaching his student the character trait of focusing on the good. This, Rabbeinu Yonah writes, is the reason for the Mitzvah to guard our speech. There is no actual prohibition of lashon hara for focusing on the unpleasant aspects of a dead dog, however one who sees things in a negative fashion misses the point of the mitzvah not to speak lashon hara. It is not enough merely to not speak badly about others the root of the Commandment is to focus on the good in people. In refraining from speaking badly about others, one should strive to transform himself into a person with a positive outlook on life.
We have seen how the mitzvah of the Red Heifer teaches us that we are obligated to fulfill mitzvot without questioning their logic, and yet at the same time, we are also obligated to understand the reasons of the mitzvot so that we can grow from them in the intended way. A recommended way to achieve this is to spend some time analyzing the reasons behind the Commandments; there are many sources, one can look to the earlier sources such as the Sefer Hachinuch or turn to later commentaries such as Rabbi Hirsch or Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan. By doing this we can remind ourselves that each Mitzvah has reasons that we are supposed to be aware of and use to grow from. All the mitzvot have internal messages - it is up to us to learn them and use them in their intended way.
1. Ohr HaChaim Hakados, Chukas, 19:2.
2. Sichos Mussar, Chukas, Maamer 78.
3. Nidda 31b.
4. Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvo 166.
5. Ramban, Ki Setsey, 22:6.
6. Shaarey Teshuva, Shaar 3, Maamer 216-217.