Reasons and Tastes
Chukat-Balak (Numbers 19:1-25:9 )
The Midrash (Kohelles Rabba 7:23) relates that King Solomon made a special effort to understand the reasons for para adumah (red heifer). In the end he concluded that the subject was still far from his understanding. Para adumah remained the classic example of a chok, a Divine Law whose purpose completely eludes us.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) explains that the reasons for the mitzvot were not revealed because in each case in which reasons were given, even Solomon, the wisest of all men, was led to err. The Torah prohibits a king from marrying an excess of wives lest they turn his heart away from God (Deut. 17:17). Solomon decided that the reason for the prohibition did not apply to him, and that he could therefore ignore it with impunity. At that moment, says the Midrash, the yud of the yarbeh – from which the prohibition is derived – prostrated itself before God and said, "Solomon is nullifying me! Today it is I, tomorrow another letter, until the entire Torah will be abrogated."
The Almighty responded, "A thousand like Solomon will be nullified, but one bit of you will never be nullified." In the end, Solomon himself admitted, "That which I thought I understood in the Torah was mere foolishness, for who can fathom or question the wisdom of the King?" (Shemot Rabba 6:1)
The Midrash is extremely difficult to understand. It seems to imply that Solomon's error lay in his understanding of the Torah. Yet it appears that his failure was due to misplaced confidence in his own powers, rather than misunderstanding the Torah.
TASTES AND REASONS
The Mishnah (Berachos 33b) rules that one who says, "As Your mercies, God, devolve on the mother bird and its nest, so too, have mercy on us," must be silenced. The Talmud explains that the requirement of sending away the mother bird prior to taking her eggs is solely a Divine decree, not based on the desire to be merciful to the mother bird, as the forbidden prayer would seem to imply. Yet the Sages themselves say (Devarim Rabba 6:1): "...So, too, God's mercy extends to the birds, as it says, 'When you discover a bird's nest... send away the mother...' "
To resolve this contradiction, we must distinguish between a taste and a reason. If we were asked why we eat, we would answer that we must eat in order to live. If questioned further why we eat bread and not stones, we might refer to the necessary nutrients available in bread but not in stones. But if asked why human beings need these nutrients, or why we are capable of extracting needed minerals from bread and not rocks, we could say nothing more than that is how God created the world and the answer lies exclusively in His mind.
Even though we eat to stay alive, God created the world in such a way that our food also has a pleasing taste and aroma. But that taste should never be confused with our reason for eating. Even if our taste buds were destroyed and we could not taste our food, we would still have to eat. And if we let our taste buds guide our choice of foods, we might soon die of malnutrition.
The mitzvot are the spiritual nourishment of our soul. Why or how a particular mitzvah nourishes our soul we cannot know any more than why God created bodies which require certain nutrients. But God wanted the mitzvot to be palatable to us, so he infused them with taste – ideas and lessons – that we can understand. We must never confuse, however, the lessons of the mitzvot with their underlying reasons. Thus, all the extensive literature explaining the mitzvot always refers to these explanations as ta'amei mitzvot, literally "the tastes of the mitzvot."
In this light, Meiri explains the verse, "For it is chok for Israel, a mishpat to the God of Jacob" (Psalms 81:5). For us, all mitzvot are ultimately chukim, unfathomable decrees. But to God they are all mishpatim, based on an overall plan known only to the Divine mind.
SUPERSEDES HUMAN RECKONING
If one entreats God, Who has mercy on the birds, to similarly have mercy on us, that entreaty reflects his own determination that he understands the reason for the mitzvah from God's perspective. That is a mistake. We can never know why God decreed a particular mitzvah. But to learn from the mitzvah a lesson of mercy, as an enhancement to our performance of the mitzvah, is perfectly acceptable. That is the intent of the Sages in the Midrash mentioned above.
With this distinction between reason and taste, the error of Solomon becomes clear. The explanations given for the prohibition of marrying too many wives are themselves only ta'amei haTorah – for the mitzvah based on these explanations is totally unacceptable. Thus Solomon's error did not lie exclusively in overconfidence in his own self control. He also misunderstood the Torah by confusing "tastes" and "reasons." For this reason, it was the yud that went before God to complain, for the yud represents the command which supersedes all human reckoning as it originates from the Divine mind (Shiurei Da'as, Part III, "Bein Yisrael La'Amim").
All mitzvot are intrinsically chukim, unfathomable Divine decrees. With respect to some, even the ta'am is obscure, and they are categorized as chukim, and in some the ta'am is more easily discerned, and they are called mishpatim.
Para adumah is called Chukat HaTorah, a law of the Torah, and not Chukat HaParah, the law of the red heifer, because it demonstrates in the clearest fashion that the entire Torah is based on a Divine understanding beyond our ability to fathom. Only when we base our performance of mitzvot on submission to the decree of the Creator, will they be performed with perfection.