Parashat Behukotai: The Misvot We Do Not Understand
Parashat Behukotai begins by promising great rewards for observing Hashem’s commands. The introductory verse says, “If you follow My statutes [‘Hukotai’] and observe My commands and perform them.”
The term “Hukim” refers to those Misvot whose logic eludes human comprehension, as we cannot understand their reasons. An example would be the laws of Kashrut. There is no reason that we can conceive for why we should not eat milk or dairy products within six hours of eating meat. This is a “Hok” – a law which we observe because Hashem commanded us, despite the fact that we do not understand its logic. Another example would be Sha’atnez – the prohibition against wearing a garment that contains both wool and linen. This Misva, too, does not seem to have any rational explanation that we can understand. We nevertheless obey these commanda because we firmly believe that they have reasons and that we are bound to obey G-d’s commands regardless of whether or not we understand them.
The other category of Misvot, “Mishpatim,” consists of those Misvot which make sense to us. For example, we all intuitively understand that we should honor our parents. Similarly, it makes perfect sense to us that the Torah strictly forbids murder and theft. As opposed to the “Hukim,” which we must observe even though we do not understand their reasons, the reasons underlying “Mishpatim” are perfectly clear.
Once we understand the difference between these two categories of Misvot, we can understand more clearly this opening verse of our Parasha. The Torah is telling us that if “Be’hukotai Telechu” – if we obey the “Hukim,” then we will receive reward for all our Misva observance. If a person observes only the “Mishpatim,” the laws of the Torah which make sense to him, but not those which he cannot understand, then he will not receive reward even for those. After all, if he only observes that which he understands, then he does not truly serve Hashem; he serves himself. Those who serve G-d obey Him unconditionally, while those who observe only the laws which make sense to them are not truly loyal servants. Therefore, the Torah tells us that our reward for Misvot depends on our observance of “Hukotai” – the Misvot whose reasons we do not understand. If we faithfully observe these Misvot, then we are considered loyal servants of Hashem and are thus worthy of reward for all our Misvot.
Understanding the logic behind the Misvot must never be a precondition for our observance. We are to place our full trust in Hashem, and to believe that everything He commands us to do is the best thing for ourselves and for the world.
I recall in high school being taught about the Misva of “Mayim Aharonim” – washing our hands before Birkat Ha’mazon. The reason for this Misva is the concern that one might have eaten food with strong salt which might still remain on his fingers, and if he does not wash his hands at the end of the meal, he might touch his eyes, which could be dangerous. My friends and I challenged the Rabbi and asked why Halacha would be concerned with such a far-fetched risk. How likely is it, we asked, that a person would damage his eyes in this way? Was it really necessary for the Sages to require washing at the end of the meal to guard against this risk? It did not make sense to us.
That night, I ate pizza for dinner, and I decided that since the law of “Mayim Aharonim” did not make sense to me, I would not wash before Birkat Ha’mazon. Later, when I started taking out my contact lenses, I felt a sharp pain in my eye, and I was rushed to the doctor’s office. It turned out that there was some residual red pepper on my hands from the pizza I ate for dinner, and a particle of red pepper entered my eye and caused a severe irritation. From that day on, I have always ensured to wash “Mayim Aharonim.”
Observing the Torah requires observing its laws unconditionally, regardless of whether or not we understand the reasons. Of course, great Rabbis have uncovered the reasons behind many of the Misvot, and we are certainly encouraged to learn and try to understand to the best of our ability the messages underlying the Misvot. At the same time, however, we must remember that we are bound by the “Hukim” as much as we are bound by the “Mishpatim,” and that, in fact, the true test of loyalty and faith is whether we are as careful to observe the laws which we do not understand as we are to observe those which we do understand.