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Parshas Chukas/Balak 5759

Outline Vol. 3, # 27

by Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein

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 without interruption.

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 inexperience.

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 explicitly stated.

The Debate

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.

Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein
11 Kiryas Radin
Spring Valley, NY 10977
Phone: (914) 362-5156

Good Shabbos!

Text Copyright © '98 Rabbi Yaakov Bernstein and Project Genesis, Inc.



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