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Shabbat Parashat Shemini 5776

Parashat Hashavua: Intellect, Logic, Particles, and a Cat

Harav Yosef Carmel

This week the maftir is the section on the Para Aduma (Red Heifer). It is a good time to look at the place of logic and human intellect as a central part of our belief as Jews, and how the Para Aduma fits into the fabric of the mitzvot in this regard.

Our Rabbis discussed why this week was chosen as the time to read about Para Aduma. Some say that it is related to the fact that the month of Nisan is approaching, as the Para Aduma is needed to prepare people for partaking in the Korban Pesach. (Interestingly, both of them are called a chuka, which we usually translate as a mitzva whose reasoning is unknown to us). Indeed, in the desert, they burnt a slaughtered Para Aduma soon before the month of Nisan, in order to sprinkle its ashes on Bnei Yisrael right after the Mishkan was erected. Some explain that it has to do with our hope for ultimate redemption, which, sources indicate, will occur in Nisan, as the Para Aduma will return to use at that time.

We will try to explain the matter slightly differently. Rashi (based on a midrash) explains the opening of Parashat Para, “This the chuka of the Torah” (Bamidbar 19:2), as follows: “Because the Satan and the nations of the world scoff at Israel, saying: ‘What is this mitzva, and what reasoning does it have behind it?’ Therefore, it says that it is a chuka. It is a decree from before Me, and you do not have permission to cast aspersions on it.” Rashi’s words teach us two principles.  

Mitzvot have to pass the “test of common sense and logic.” Since all of our actions have to be based on the rules of clear logic, the mitzvot, which are the basis of our lives, also have to meet these standards. To the extent that we do not conform to this rule, we will be allowing the Satan and the nations of the world to have claims against us.

Within the apparatus of mitzvot that conform to this idea of logic, there are a small number of mitzvot that are exceptions that are identified as chukim. If the exceptions turned into the rule, then Torah Judaism would turn into something distant from us. If one felt such was the situation, he would be susceptible to the arguments of the Satan. It is upon this backdrop that the midrash tells how even Moshe questioned Hashem about the logic of ashes purifying, until Hashem assured him that this is a chuka (Psikta D’Rav Kahane 4).

We all try to purify and improve our way of thinking, our actions and the status of our nation. We must always take steps in a manner that is measured, based on logic, and it is strictly forbidden to act irrationally, certainly not in a way that endangers oneself or the welfare of the nation. On the other hand, we must remember that not always will things be fully understood. There will be things that exceed human intellect.

We can illustrate this idea with the natural sciences, which, on the one hand, are explored with the idea that theories are to be analyzed and exposed to experimentation. Yet, one of the important ideas in particle physics is the principle of uncertainty. Let us express that in a different way. We will never know the answer to the paradox as to whether Schrodinger’s cat is alive or dead.

As Nisan and the season of liberation approaches, we need to know that our steps toward full liberation should be taken logically. Even though we have experienced miracles, such as the very establishment of the State of Israel, miracles are the exception. We should proceed in a manner that does not give the nations of the world unnecessary ammunition to attack our actions.

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