Reasons and Tastes
The Midrash (Kohelles Rabbah 7:23) relates that Shlomo Hamelech made a special effort to understand the reasons for parah adumah (the red heifer). IN the end he concluded that the subject was still far from his understanding. Parah adumah remained the classic example of a chok, a Divine Law whose purpose completely eludes us.
The Gemara (Sanhedrin 21b) explains that the reasons for the mitzvos were not revealed because in each case in which reasons were given even Shlomo, the wisest of all men, was led to err. The Torah prohibits a kind from marrying an excess of wives lest they turn his heart away from Hashem (Devarim 17:17). Shlomo decided that he therefor ignore it with impunity. At that moment, says the Midrash the yud of the yarbeh — from which the prohibition is derived — prostrated itself before Hashem and said, “Ribbono Shel Olam, Shlomo is nullifying me. Today it is I, tomorrow another letter, until the entire Torah will be abrogated.”
HaKadosh Boruch Hu responded, “A thousand like Shlomo will be nullified, but one bit of you will never be nullified.” In the end, Shlomo himself admitted, “That which I thought I understood in the Torah was mere foolishness, for who can fathom or question the wisdom of the King?” (Shemos Rabbah 6:1).
The Midrash is extremely difficult to understand. It seems to imply that Shlomo’s error lay in his understanding of the Torah. Yet it appears that his failure was due to misplaced confidence in his own powers rather than misunderstanding the Torah.
The Mishnah (Berachos 33b) rules that one who says, “As Your mercies, G-d, devolve on the mother bird and its nest, so too, have mercy on us,” must be silenced. The Gemara explains that the requirement of sending away the mother bird prior to taking her eggs is solely a Divine decree, not based on the desire to be merciful to the mother bird, as the forbidden prayer would seem to imply. Yet the Sages themselves say (Devarim Rabbah 6:1): “…So, too, G-d’s mercy extends to the birds, as it says, ‘When you discover a bird’s nest…send away the mother…’”
To resolve this contradiction, we must distinguish between a taste and a reason. If we were asked why we eat, we would answer that we must eat in order to live. If questioned further why we eat bread and not stones, we might refer to the necessary nutrients available in bread but not in stones. But if asked why human beings need these nutrients, or why we are capable to extracting needed minerals from bread and not rocks, we could say nothing more than that is how G-d created the world and the answer lies exclusively in His mind.
Even though we eat to stay alive, Hashem created the world in such a way that our food also has a pleasing taste and aroma. But that taste should never be confused with our reason for eating. Even if our taste buds were destroyed we could not taste our food, we would still have to eat. And if we let our taste buds guide our choice of foods, we might soon die of malnutrition.
The mitzvos are the spiritual nourishment of our neshamah. Why or how a particular mitzvah nourishes our soul we cannot know any more than why G-d created bodies which require certain nutrients. But Hashem wanted the mitzvos to be palatable to us, so he infused them with taste — ideas and lessons — that we can understand. We must never confuse, however, the lessons of the mitzvos, with their underlying reasons. Thus all the extensive literature explaining the mitzvos always refers to these explanations as Ta’amei Mitzvos, literally “the tastes of the mitzvos.”
In this light, Meiri explains the verse, “For it is chok for Yisrael a mishpat to the G-d of Yaakov” (Tehillim 81:5). For us, all mitzvos are ultimately chukim, unfathomable decrees. But to Hashem they are all mishpatim, based on an overall plan known only to the Divine mind.
If one entreats G-d, Who has mercy on the birds, to similarly have mercy on us, that entreaty reflects his own determination that he understands the reason for the mitzvah from G-d’s perspective. That is a mistake. We can never know why G-d decreed a particular mitzvah. But to learn from the mitzvah a lesson of mercy, as an enhancement to our performance of the mitzvah, is perfectly acceptable. That is the intent of the Sages in the Midrash mentioned above.
With this distinction between reason and taste, the error of Shlomo becomes clear. The explanations given for the prohibition of marrying too many wives are themselves only ta’amei haTorah — from the mitzvah based on these explanations is totally unacceptable. Thus Shlomo’s error did not lie exclusively in overconfidence in his own self control. He also misunderstood the Torah by confusing “tastes” and reasons. For this reason, it was the yud that went before Hashem to complain, for the yud represents the command which supersedes all human reckoning as it originates from the Divine mind (Shiurei Da’as, Part III, “Bein Yisrael La’Amim”).
All mitzvos are intrinsically chukim, unfathomable Divine decrees. With respect to some, even the ta’am is obscure, and they are categorized as chukim, and in some the ta’am is more easily discerned, and they are called mishpatim.
Parah adumah is called Chukas HaTorah, a law of the Torah, and not Chukas HaParah, the law of the red heifer, because it demonstrates in the clearest fashion that the entire Torah is based on a Divine understanding beyond our ability to fathom. Only when we base our performance of mitzvos on submission to the decree of the Creator, will they be performed with perfection.