In last week’s parsha the Torah told us:
“Observe therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the (Gentile) peoples, that you listen to the statutes that I commanded you…” (Devarim 4:6)
There are those who ask, “We would understand if the Gentiles were impressed by us listening to and executing the lofty and difficult ‘mishpatim’ (understandable laws), but how do they see our ‘wisdom and understanding’ in following a ‘chok’ (a law that does not seem to have a reason?)”
In this week’s parsha, the Torah explains how Klal Yisrael meticulously listened to the seemingly insignificant commandments. Rashi tells us that this is the meaning of the word “Eikev” – referring to a commandment that a person tramples on with his feet. Later on, the Torah uses the word “Eikev” again “Eikev lo tishme’un…” (Devarim 8:20) in referring to Jews worshipping idols. This is problematic because worshipping idols is definitely not from the “small time” sins, yet the Torah uses the same word “Eikev” as if it is a small infraction.
In order to understand why the Torah uses the same word for both, I would like to suggest the following: It seems to me that people who think that the Torah is understandable set values on which mitzvos are important and which ones are negligible. Thus, they feel exonerated when they trample on things which they think are insignificant (I have heard people ask “Does Hashem really care if I wash my hands in the morning?”). Once a person begins to evaluate the mitzvos, he automatically tends to adjust them to his needs. The person who tramples on—what seems to him—insignificant mitzvos, can eventually end up trampling on those mitzvahs that he himself used to think were “center-stage” in Yiddishkeit, such as “idol worship” (the issue mentioned in verse 8:20).
In recent times, we have seen the Reform and Conservative movements chiseling-away at things which they felt were not the “core issues” of Yiddishkeit, and eventually those same institutions came to trample on the things that even they once held were prominent Jewish values.
Now let us return back to our original idea. Even the Gentiles understand that if we accept our religion as a “chok”, meaning that there is nothing which is negotiable (one can expand and explain in accordance with the mesora given to us), that this will keep the religion solvent. This is the “wisdom and understanding” that they see.
Though we may seem to understand information which has been given to us, that does not make it “ours” to do with as we wish. Zachariah Ben Avkulus used the wrong Torah-value of being a humble person in passing judgement in the story of “Kamtza vibar Kamtza”, which brought about the eventual destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. A misplaced mishpat, not used the way the mesora would have told us, can bring about colossal negative results.
With Tisha B’Av behind us and Rosh Hashanah in front of us, let us readjust our focus on the Mitzvos: May we merit to be stalwart in our resolve to keep the Torah as a “chok.”