Parshas Chukas begins with the enigmatic Parah Adumah (Red Heifer) --
the process of achieving purification after coming in contact with the
dead. Rashi explains that the nations of the world taunt Yisrael
because of the confusing, mystical appearance of this mitzvah. Hashem
instructs them to respond: "It is a decree from Me -- do not question!"
Rav Yerucham Levovitz stated principles for instructors. A teacher
must explain well, or he cannot succeed. The opposite, however, is
also true. If the teacher explains everything perfectly, the end will
be disastrous. The students will become so dependent on that
particular teacher, that they will be helpless on their own.
Rather, the teacher should explain certain areas well, and certain
areas leave unexplained. The unexplained areas will test the
confidence of the students. When they see enough areas sufficiently
explained, they develop faith in the underlying basis of the system.
At that point, even when confronted with an area which they don't
understand, their confidence in the system will allow them to continue
Similarly, Hashem revealed the reason behind certain commandments,
while the concepts behind certain mitzvos remain unrevealed. Each,
indeed, has profound logic beneath the surface; man's finite being,
however, cannot know all. Shlomo Hamelech (King Solomon), the wisest
human being, came to the recognition of his limits in this manner. "I
studied wisdom -- but came to the conclusion that it was beyond me."
(Koheles 7:23.) The Rabbis said that Shlomo said this in connection
with the Parah Adumah.
Yeshiva students must learn Talmud, commentaries, legal codes and
responsa, as well as ethical works -- for many years -- before they are
competent to accomplish on their own. Their exposure to the thousands
of years of brilliant Torah scholarship has revealed to them a
breathtaking array of thought, research, tradition and knowledge.
In the year 5023 (1263), Ramban, forced to debate with the leaders of
the Inquisition, stunned the audience into respectful acknowledgment.
His command of Talmud, history, language, logic and religious issues
won the admiration of King James I of Aragon, who was present
throughout the debate. Seeing that there are answers, instills a
confidence in the system, and quashes the doubts that arise through
The Riddle, Continued
Last week, we discussed the riddle: Witnesses who bring about a false
conviction -- without causing a death -- can be executed; yet, if they
indeed caused a wrongful death -- they cannot be punished.
There is a distinction between fines and damages. A fine is arbitrary,
not a recompense -- that is, it does not repay a loss, but instead acts
as a deterrent. Suppose you are ticketed for a traffic violation.
Imagine arguing with the judge over the steep amount of the fine. "Why
must I pay such an exorbitant amount? Did I hurt anyone?" Such an
argument will not get very far. The fine is not paying for damage --
but is a warning and a lesson in itself.
The Talmud says that logical conclusions cannot be drawn from fines,
because the fine is arbitrary as far as the crime committed is
concerned. Rabbi Akiva established that the punishment of false
witnesses is, in any circumstance (capital, corporal or monetary)
considered a fine. Further, in discussing our specific question, the
Talmud explains another reason why one cannot make logical conclusions
regarding false witnesses: "Ein onshin min hadin" -- punishments should
never be logically deduced. This is a general rule; one common
explanation is as follows: Logical conclusions are never completely
iron-clad. Although halacha is generally decided by logic, we cannot
rely on logic alone to generate punishments for human beings. The
Torah is our constitution, but we shall not make logical deductions to
expand the Torah's punishments beyond the cases where they are
The Tzadukim were a sect that rejected the authenticity of the oral
traditions, preferring to interpret verses literally. The Talmud
records a debate on our subject, which took place between the Tzadukim
and the Rabbis. The Tzadukim said that false witnesses should only be
executed if they actually caused a death. The Rabbis replied that the
verses themselves proved otherwise: The punishment of witnesses is
determined by what they wanted to accomplish, not by the damage that
they succeeded in accomplishing. (Tractate Makos, 5b)
It seems clear that the debate of the two camps is rooted in another,
similar argument (Baba Kama 83). The verses describing the witnesses'
punishment state: "You shall treat them according to what they wanted
to accomplish -- a soul for a soul, an eye for an eye," etc.
Similarly, the verses state in regard to damages: "a soul in place of a
soul, an eye in place of an eye," etc. (Shmos [Exodus 21:23-24].) The
Tzadukim thought that the Torah was to be taken literally, and
sanctioned "measure for measure." Just as damages were treated
"measure for measure," witnesses also were to be punished "measure for
measure." The Rabbis' arguments that damages are not punished measure
for measure take up many pages in tractate Baba Kama. Maimonides
discussed the fact that a dissenting opinion was never found among the
Rabbis, for the basis of their thought here is the direct transmission
of the oral traditions from Moshe Rabbeinu.
"Scriptures" are very open-ended, bearing many possible
interpretations. You can read many ideas into the verses. The Prophet
Hoshea states (8:12): "If I write most of My Torah -- you will be
considered a stranger." The commentaries explain: All the nations
will read and interpret the written text. Therefore, the bulk of the
Torah will not be written, but, instead, be orally transmitted. In
this way, the original intent will remain intact.