SPARK OF THE WEEK

5755 - #13

In the NISHMA Update, June 1993, Inquiry: The March for Israel Parade and Halachic Decision Making, we introduced the famous distinction, originating in T.B. Yoma 67b but developed extensively in Rambam, Shemona Perakim, chapter six, between mitzvot sichliyot, commandments that we understand, and chukkot, commandments that we do not understand. Prohibitions that fall within the first category are to connect with our moral perceptions; we are to share a deep negative response to the inherent action that is forbidden. We are to internally feel morally that the act of murder is evil. Towards laws that fall within the second category, though, we are not to see anything morally repugnant in the prohibited behaviour; we refrain solely because of the Divine directive. We are to perceive the eating of pork to be an enjoyable experience that includes no inherent wrong - except that Hashem has declared this action forbidden. How we approach the mitzvot, our behaviour as Jews, is affected by this significant differentiation between commandments. Yet, as we began to recognize in that earlier discussion, this distinction is not as straightforward as we may think, it is not always easy to clearly define in which category a specific commandment may fall.

At the core of this issue is our understanding of human knowledge and the human perception of morality. This is a topic we have returned to on many occasions; see, for examples, Spark of the Week 5753 - #9 and Spark of the Week 5754 - #10. As evidenced by the chukkot, we are to recognize our limitations, that G-d's Knowledge is not only quantitatively greater than ours but is qualitatively different and greater. Yet, as evidenced by the mitzvot sichliyot, we are also called upon to apply our being and thought processes in our connection with the Divine, that the Torah also gives value to the human mind and perceptive abilities planted within us by Hashem Who created us in His Image. How do we combine in our connection with Torah these two diametrically opposite poles - one demonstrating that we have and should have no voice while the other declaring that we do have and should have one? Yet a more basic issue may be the very fact that, on any level, the human mind and perceptive ability - of essence, continuously fluctuating - is given value by the never-changing Divine.

Human morality changes. Many, in fact, argue for the need of a Divine statement on morality because human determinations on this subject are relative and change. What man deems moral today, may have been immoral yesterday; what man deems immoral today, may have been moral yesterday. Thus the argument for the need of a Divine statement of morality; absolute morality can only be declared by the Divine. Yet, through the category of mitzvot sichliyot and the value thereby given to the human moral consciousness, the Torah gives value to human morality? The absolute morality of Torah calls for the involvement of, what we may term, the relative morality of man. What significance can there be to this category when the human moral perception that gives meaning to this category can change? What man may deem to be a mitzvah sichliya today, may have been a chok yesterday; what man may deem to be a chok today, may have been a mitzvah sichliya yesterday. What, therefore, is the significance of these categories and the human involvement in Torah morality?

The answer may not lie in the conclusions that we reach but in the process. We take our moral perceptions for granted; we assume them to simply be. That slavery is abhorrent is obvious to us. Yet, for centuries, human beings did not recognize this article of moral clarity. The laws of negligence are ingrained in our being as indubitably just, that the one who makes a mistake should accept responsibility. But have we considered that, perhaps, a person should recognize that mistakes do occur and should be more attentive and not be a victim? We may find it most interesting that, in some areas of our society's laws, there is movement in that direction. For most of history, the value of virginity was without question, yet are we not now hardpressed to find this value as we perceive in this definitional focus a reduction in our recognition of the human being? This reality of flux is the very argument for theDivine necessity in absolute morality and the weakness of the human involvement in moral determination. What we do not recognize is that this very flux is the key to the possibility of moral advancement and education.

When we first approach the term mitzvah sichliya, we believe this category to simply be reflective. There are commandments that the human being can understand - that the human being already understands. If we understand the command, we declare it to be a mitzvah sichliya; if we do not understand the command, we declare it to be a chok. Yet the categories may actually be educational. Mitzvot sichliyot are not commandments in which we see the morality but rather commandments which instruct us morally. Our human moral perception is not intended to define a mitzvah per se but rather it is that which enables us to be educated morally by Torah. In fact, it is the very ability of our moral perception to change that allows us to be so educated.

The movement of a mitzvah from chok to mitzvah sichliya and back and forth is not problematic but is actually part of the growth process. When we understand - we challenge our understanding. When we do not understand - we strive to understand. The category of a mitzvah does not reflect on the command but rather on us - our connection to the mitzvah. Are we, at this particular point, learning a moral lesson or not? Where are we on the path of growth?

But how are we to see the ultimate picture? Are these categories not, on some level, a reflection of truth? The Torah laws of negligence are generally deemed to be within the world of the mitzvot sichliyot, yet many details are beyond our comprehension, in the world of the chukkot. Both categories exist in the same commandment. Ultimately, these two significant categories may not define two distinct groups of mitzvot but rather may truly reflect two distinct poles that should exist within each and every commandment.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht


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2002 NISHMA