Letters Feb. 2020

“Irrational” Commands

Reader: In this essay  mesora.org/zohar.html it sounds like the mitzvot are subject to human rationale.  Indeed, you write in other articles that every mitzvah is rational, even if we do not understand it ourselves. But, this passage your reference seems to say that seemingly irrational mitzvot can be discarded.  Ibn Ezra taught that even a command of the Torah is not followed if it is irrational. If in the written Torah we abandon that which is irrational, so much more so in other areas. Do you mean to say that if one cannot find a good rationale  for a commandment (i.e. that he deems it irrational) that he is not obligated to keep it?  Is it feasible that one could reject a commandment in the Torah, despite knowing its Divine Authorship?  What is the source in the Ibn Ezra, and did the statement cause any controversy? 

Rabbi: This Ibn Ezra is on the Ten Commands in Yisro. He means that if we cannot understand a mitzvah's performance, there is no action that registers on our minds, and therefore there is nothing we can perform. He does not mean to discard a mitzvah like shatnez, the performance of which is understood, although we may not understand its purpose.  But as he cites, the mitzvah of “circumcising the foreskin of your hearts” (Deut. 10:16) cannot mean to literally tear our hearts from our bodies and cut them. If there were no Oral Law explanation that this means to subdue one’s emotions (hearts), we could not perform the mitzvah, as we would not know what the command is. But the verse’s latter half sheds light: “Cut away, therefore, the foreskin of  your hearts and stiffen your necks no more.”  The command means not to be stiff-necked or stubborn: to subdue one’s emotions. 


Reader: Hi Rabbi, Some people believe in the strange idea of the transmigration of souls, the passing of a person’s soul into a newly born body after death. Some use it to explain why righteous people suffer “because of their sins” and for no other reason. That is to say, that the righteous are punished due to the sins in a prior life. Conversely, the wicked may prosper because of righteous deeds they performed in their prior life. Furthermore, they say that happiness and sorrow is an everyday phenomenon. They claim that it would be an injustice for a soul to suffer for no reason at all and one to enjoy happiness without the practice of virtue. Do you think any of this makes any sense? And if not due to sins, what is a better explanation for why good people suffer? Thank you, Jeremy

Rabbi: Although resuscitation is found in Torah, reincarnation is not. It is also something that cannot be witnessed, and therefore, without proof.  

Throughout Torah, God says He punishes and rewards for what we do here, not for what someone else did 300 years ago. So this theory is against God. 

Regarding good people suffering, Rashi attributes Jacob’s loss of Joseph for the same number of years that Jacob failed to honor his parents; Rashi ties his suffering to some just cause. And the tzaddikim who were killed in the fist Temple destruction failed to rebuke the people’s sins. They too had a flaw.  Maimonides writes:

“When we see that some men escape plagues and mishaps, whilst others perish by them” … “it must be attributed to their different degrees of perfection, some approaching God, whilst others moving away from Him. Those who approach Him are best protected, and “He will keep the feet of his saints,” but those who keep far away from Him are left exposed to what may befall them; there is nothing that could protect them from what might happen; they are like those who walk in darkness, and are certain to stumble. The protection of the pious by Providence is also expressed in the following passages: “He keeps all his bones,” etc. (Ps. xxxiv. 21); “The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous” (ibid. ver. 16); “He shall call upon me and I shall answer him” (ibid. xci. 15). (Guide, book III, chap. xviii). 

Maimonides also writes, “…he must not assume that a person is innocent and perfect and does not deserve what has befallen him” (Ibid. chap xxiv).