Parashat Shoftim: Pure, Simple Faith
** L’iluy Nishmat Natan ben Shoshana Haley **
The Torah in Parashat Shoftim (17:16-17) presents the basic laws relevant to the Jewish king, including the command that he may not marry too many wives, or acquire too many horses. The reason, as the Torah explains, is because a king who marries too many women may be led astray from religious commitment, and if he seeks to acquire too many horses, he might then send some men to Egypt to purchase horses.
The Gemara in Masechet Sanhedrin (21b) relates that King Shlomo erred in regard to both these commands. He felt confident in his great level of piety, and thus figured he could marry many wives, and acquire large amounts of horses, without his heart being led astray, and without bringing men back to Egypt. In the end, however, his heart was indeed led astray, and he sent men to Egypt.
The Gemara explains that this is precisely why the Torah generally does not reveal to us the reasons for its commands. If a person as great as Shlomo ended up making mistakes in regard to the two Misvot for which reasons were given, then certainly, if the reasons for the other commands were also given, then many of us would err. If we knew the reasons for the Misvot, we would allow ourselves to make exceptions, figuring that the reasons do not apply to us, and we would then end up neglecting and violating much of the Torah.
The Ben Ish Hai (Rav Yosef Haim of Baghdad, 1833-1909), in the introduction to his Od Yosef Hai, discusses the Gemara’s comment in reference to the question of whether we should inquire into the philosophical underpinnings of the Torah’s laws. The two schools of thought on the subject, as the Ben Ish Hai writes, are "Emuna Peshuta" – simple, unquestioning faith, and "Emuna Be’hakira" – faith through inquiry and analysis. The Ben Ish Hai posits that the correct approach is to combine both forms of faith – but in the right sequence and with the right perspective. First, we must firmly establish our "Emuna Peshuta," our simple faith. We must recognize that each and Misva is binding and relevant irrespective of whether or not we understand its reason. Only once we have established this unquestioning faith can we then proceed to probe and explore, in an effort to understand the reasons for the Misvot. If we try to explore the philosophical explanations before firmly establishing our simple faith, then we might be misled to find reasons why we are not bound by the Torah’s commands. It is only once we have made it clear to ourselves that the Misvot are unconditionally binding and relevant that we can then probe and inquire into their reasoning.
The Ben Ish Hai compares philosophical inquiry into the foundations of the Misvot to seasoning which enhances our food. Of course, we cannot subsist only on spices. Our main nourishment comes from the food itself. But we add seasoning to enhance the food, to make the experience of eating more enjoyable. Similarly, the Ben Ish Hai writes, our primary, most basic focus must be an unquestioning commitment to the Misvot, but we are then encouraged to enhance the experience of Misva observance through study and inquiry, in an attempt to understand the meaning and purpose of Misvot.
The Ben Ish Hai explains on this basis the story told in the Gemara (Sota 13) that as Beneh Yisrael traveled through the desert, they carried two Aronot (ark) next to one another – the Aron containing the tablets, representing the Shechina (divine presence), and the coffin containing the remains of Yosef. People would ask about these two Aronot, and when they heard what the Aronot contained, they wondered, "How could the dead travel next to the Shechina?" They could not understand how a coffin could be carried right next to the holy ark where the Shechina resided.
Beneh Yisrael responded, "This one fulfilled that which is written in this one" – meaning, Yosef fulfilled the commands of the Torah contained in the Aron, and thus his remains could be carried alongside it.
The Ben Ish Hai offered a deeper explanation of this story. The name "Yosef" means "addition," and thus Yosef’s coffin represents the reasons behind the Misvot, the philosophical explanations of the Torah’s commands which enhance our observance. The Aron of the Shechina, by contrast, represents simple, pure faith, without any inquiry or study. Some people wonder how these two approaches can both be followed. Philosophical inquiry is like "death" – as it can easily lead to spiritual demise. How, then, can it "travel" alongside the "Shechina," can it be included as part of religious life?
The Gemara’s answer to this question is, "This one fulfilled that which is written in this one." Once we’ve established our firm, unwavering commitment to fulfilling the Misvot, then we can embark upon the study of the reasons behind the Misvot for the purpose of "Yosef" – to enhance and elevate the experience of Misva observance. Our highest priority must be to build within ourselves and our children "Emuna Peshuta" – pure, innocent faith, and thereafter we can proceed to explore and study the reasons behind the Misvot to bring our observance to greater heights.