April 22, 2024
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April 22, 2024
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Most of Parshat Mishpatim is made up of exactly what the name of parsha indicates: laws. Mitzvot known as “mishpatim” are the type of mitzvot that we can understand. They work with logic and we often understand why these mitzvot were commanded. However, there exists another category of mitzvot, “chukim,” that generally don’t operate with logic. The classic example is parah adumah—the red cow whose ashes purify someone who came in contact with a dead body. Although these ashes purify, the kohen who sprinkles them becomes tamei, impure. Doesn’t sound very logical, does it? What is the purpose of having these two types of mitzvot? Let’s explore through two short stories.

Matthew had a math test coming up on Friday, and he really wanted to study well. Matthew’s math teacher, Mr. Weinberg, recommended three total hours of study and Matthew intended to follow his advice. To be smart about it, Matthew decided he would study an hour each on Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Thursday night. However, when he presented this plan to his parents, they disagreed. “Sorry, Matthew,” said Matthew’s father on Tuesday night, but you must study an hour and a half tonight and do the same tomorrow. Matthew didn’t understand. “But, why would I— ” but his father cut him off. “Because it’s best for right now,” was his only reply.

So on Tuesday night, Matthew studied for 90 minutes straight, as his father instructed. On Wednesday night he tried bringing up the conversation again, this time with his mother. “Mom, I’m gonna study for a half hour and then head over to Eric’s, okay?” His mother frowned. “A half hour? But you need an hour and a half tonight. Are you going to study for an hour when you get home?” Matthew opened his mouth to explain, but then thought better. “Forget it.” Matthew was tired, and had no interest in studying for so long, but he did as his mother said.

The next night, Matthew came home from school, and his parents had a surprise for him. “Guess what, Matt? Your cousin Karen got engaged tonight, and there’s going to be a big party! Go shower and get dressed.” Matthew smiled. “Mom, Dad, did you know this was happening?” His parents smiled back. “Of course we did, honey. Sorry we had to keep the secret from you. Good thing you got all your studying done!”

Our second story is about Mr. Van Houten, a substitute teacher. Mr. Van Houten had recently retired from his job at the cracker factory and was studying teaching as a second career. So when he got his first chance to substitute teach for a month, he jumped at the opportunity. Unfortunately, Mr. Van Houten quickly encountered three major problems with his new class: fighting among students, food fights during lunch, and students staying out too long in the bathroom.

After a few days of this, Mr. Van Houten went to see Principal Belding. Mr. Belding listened for a bit and then asked a simple question: “Have you given the class a list of rules?” Mr. Van Houten answered that he did not because he thought the kids already knew what to do and what not to do. “Try three rules,” responded the principal. So Mr. Van Houten returned the next day with three new rules. First, the punishment for fighting is one week of no recess. Second, bathroom breaks are five minutes maximum. Third, anyone throwing food must clean up the entire lunchroom.

After two days, Mr. Van Houten was pleased with the results. All three problems had been cut in half. He figured that by next Wednesday, everything would be perfect. Oh, was he wrong! Five minutes into class on Monday, Kevin went to the bathroom and stayed out for 10 minutes. When he returned, Fuller, who really needed to use the bathroom, started screaming at Kevin for being so selfish. In response, Kevin picked up his yogurt and threw it at Fuller. Within 30 seconds there was an all-out food fight in the classroom and Mr. Van Houten had to hide under his desk until all the food ran out.

Worse than the mess was the disappointment. Mr. Van Houten was sure that his rules had solved the problem, but now it looked like they made it worse! Now he had no idea what to do! So Mr. Van Houten did what he always did when he needed major advice: He went to see Rabbi Krustofsky. Rabbi Krustofksy listened to Mr. Van Houten’s problem, and after thinking it over gave Mr. Van Houten the Sefer HaChinuch to learn. This sefer lists all 613 mitzvot in detail and includes lessons to learn from each mitzvah. Mr. Van Houten spent that night studying the Sefer HaChinuch until he realized the answer; like the Torah’s mitzvot, his rules also needed to be educational!

Mr. Van Houten returned on Tuesday with a new set of rules. Rule #1 was to start class each day with students saying nice things to each other. This taught the class the importance of kindness and eventually stopped the fighting. Rule #2 was to say, “Hashem, I am grateful to You that my family has enough food” before saying a bracha and eating lunch. This rule taught students to appreciate food and not waste it by throwing it. Rule #3 was that each student spending too much time in the bathroom had to apologize to the class upon returning. This rule taught the students to think about others who might be waiting to use the bathroom.

When those who we look up to give us advice or instructions, they may or may not tell us why. Sometimes that reason is not for us to know, but that doesn’t mean the instruction is not for our benefit. These are the chukim, which don’t use logic. Other times, the advice is meant to teach us a lesson as well. These are the mishpatim, of which we can make sense and can take specific lessons. Both are necessary for us to get a true appreciation for Hashem and His Torah.

By Yair Daar

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