Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 24 April 2021 / 12 Iyar 5781

Enlightened Practice

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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Practice My social ordinances (mishpatim) and keep My statutes (chukim), in order to walk in them; I, G-d, am your G-d: Keep My statutes and My social ordinances, which a man shall do and live thereby; I am G-d.

The Sages teach that mishpatim (social ordinances) are matters that are written in the Torah, but would have deserved to be written even had they not been written. Meaning, they are eminently sensible to us in structuring a functional society. They include, for example, property law and tort law. Chukim (statutes) are matters against which our sensual nature and the non-Jewish world object.

Both chukim and mishpatim are expressions of Divine wisdom and justice. But since the matters and relationships governed by the mishpatim are in the realm of social relationships of people and things, they are readily grasped by the human mind — insofar as their nature, justification and purpose in society are concerned. The matters and relationships governed by chukim are different. These relate to the interplay between body and soul, and the impact of various actions on the spiritual and moral calling of man. These are not clear to man, and are apparent only to G-d — Who created man and created the statutes. Thus, the chukim can appear to be without meaning or purpose in the superficial judgment of Jewish and non-Jewish thinkers.

Notice how the verses cited above first instruct to practice the mishpatim and keep the chukim, statutes. In the very next verse, mishpatim and the chukim are combined, and we are instructed to “keep” and “practice” both. “Keeping” classically refers to study of the commandments — this is the very first condition to fulfilling the Torah.

At first glance, one would think the study of the mishpatim is less essential, because their purpose and rationale is self-evident. On the other hand, the fulfillment of these social ordinances is clearly important because the social harm created by their disregard is obvious. Hence, we are first told to “practice” the mishpatim.

With chukim, it is exactly the opposite. At first glance, it is evident that their study is indispensable because their origin is in Divine Revelation alone, and the human mind would not otherwise discover them. On the other hand, there will be those who will content themselves with the study of chukim, and not be careful in fulfilling them, because the advantage in their fulfillment and the harm in their neglect are not at all obvious. Thus, we are first told to “study” the chukim.

The Torah then emphasizes the need for both the study and the careful fulfillment for both mishpatim and chukim. The general consciousness of justice is not sufficient to intuit justice as G-d sees it — “My social ordinances.” Those require study of the revealed Word no less than the chukim, for G-d’s laws of justice are not merely utilitarian assignment of rights and responsibilities. They are the absolute truth of matters and relationships. On the other hand, penetrating study of the chukim is insufficient — a true understanding of what is good for the soul can be reached only by those who practice them.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 18:4-5

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