Thursday, June 21, 2018

The Truth About Mitzvot

It is recorded in the Midrash Rabbah that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was once confronted by a man who challenged him about the purifying ritual of the Red Heifer (click here for details) stating, “These rituals you do, they seem like witchcraft!” In response, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai asked the man if he had ever participated in, or witnessed, a cure for a “restless spirit” that involved smoked roots and doused fires. When the man affirmed that he had witnessed the success of such a healing, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai responded: “Your ears should hear what leaves your mouth! The same thing is true for the spirit of impurity...they sprinkle upon him purifying waters and it [the spirit of impurity] flees” (Numbers Rabbah 19:8). 

In a world where “miracles” are debunked regularly on TV and physicists search for “The God Particle,” it is easy to get bogged down in the “why and how” of Jewish life. For instance, some people wish to explain that the laws of keeping kosher were intended for a healthier lifestyle - certain rules such as the prohibition of pork, makes sense when one thinks of trichinosis. But poor food options are just as common in a kosher diet as in any other, and eating undercooked chicken is just as dangerous as undercooked pork. 

The Midrash continues and explains that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s students were surprised by his response. When they asked what he would say to them, he responded: “By your lives, a dead person doesn’t make things impure and the water doesn’t make things pure. Rather, God said, ‘I have engraved a rule, I have decreed a decree, and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as it says, “This is a chok (statute without rational reason) of the Torah” All explanations aside, the mitzvot are observed because they are the mitzvot. 

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