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The Rationale

02/20/2020 11:44:10 AM


What would you do? You are in your car in the middle of a completely empty and abandoned parking lot during the day. You can see a mile in every direction clearly, and there is nobody else around (evidently, it’s a very large parking lot!). You arrive at a stop sign. Should you stop? When I ask this question in my classes, there are two approaches to this question. One approach argues that you don’t really need to stop because there is nobody else around, and the reason stop signs exist is for vehicle and pedestrian safety and traffic flow. On the other hand, there are those who will argue that of course you should stop. It’s the law! The difference between these two approaches is that one focuses on the reason behind the laws, and the other focuses more about the authority of the law in the first place.

Jewish commentators have noticed these two approaches to laws in our Torah. They notice that God sometimes tells us to do things without giving us a clear reason. We don’t really know why we should keep kosher or not wear linen and wool together, other than the fact that God told us to. We can try to come up for reasons why these laws are meaningful, but it doesn’t explain why these animals are clean and those are treif, or why the ritual has to specifically be done in a certain way. These laws are called Chukkim (singular: chok), or laws that have no rational basis. On the other hand, the Torah sometimes gives laws with clear rationales behind them. Don’t steal and don’t murder are obvious ones. These laws are called mishpatim (singular: mishpat) which is also the name of this week’s parsha. It begins “[t]hese are the mishpatim that I set before you today,” and our tradition points out that they are “set before us” because they are within our grasp to understand, like a set table ready for its diners.

As we reflect on our own practice, we can wonder about which religious stop signs we stop at in our parking lots of Judaism. We can wonder whether we should treat every law as a chok, as a law that doesn’t have nor need any rational basis, or as a mishpat, laws that makes rational sense to follow. While our tradition provides insights into which laws are which, and provides explanations for the mishpatim, our relationship to the commandments remains the same. Do we understand what they are all about? And if we do understand them, does that mean we can run the stop sign if the law doesn’t apply here? Or is the law, the law, and we are duty bound to stop? An observant Jews lives in these questions, and his/her experience of the world is imbued with meaning, even in oversized abandoned parking lots.

Shabbat Shalom

Sat, October 31 2020 13 Cheshvan 5781