Eskimos have numerous ways of naming what we refer to in Italian with the single word ‘snow.’ I suppose that is because they have so much of it. Hebrew works the same way. When the Torah directs us to do or to refrain from doing the many, many things enumerated therein, the text uses multiple terms to categorize what we would usually refer to with the single word ‘commandment.’
This week’s portion begins: These are the mishpatim, these are the rules that you shall set before them. Hebrew differentiates between mishpatim (judgments) edut (statutes) and chukim (laws). The translations are inexact, but since there are no exact synonyms in any language it would seem that these three Hebrew words are referring to different things.
The Rabbis explain it this way. Mishpatim refer to laws of social legislation that if they had not been put into the Torah people could or would have thought them up themselves simply on rational grounds. (You shall not steal) Edut would not have been legislated by human means but once established these laws make perfectly good rational sense. (Shabbat rest) Chukim, on the other hand, are laws that transcend our human understanding. (The Red Heifer) In the last case, it would seem that the Rabbis are reminding us that human reason isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.
Liberal Judaism makes sense. We have enshrined the exercise of reason along with an awareness and acceptance of discoveries in science and archeology and new approaches in philosophy, anthropology and Biblical studies into our religious understanding. But it’s not all about the mind. Human reason can take us only so far. Let’s leave a little room for mystery.
We haven’t figured it all out. As Shakespeare wrote: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.
I have just returned from conducting the wedding of a former congregant in Houston. I had officiated at the bride’s Bat Mitzvah and previously, when she was only 11, at the funeral for her father. Of course, the memory of that sad day and the absence of her ‘daddy’ were keenly felt by all assembled. As the wedding service began, one – and only one - Texas sized rose bud fell from the huppah and hit the floor with an audible thud. The bride took that as a sign that in a way mysterious and beyond all reasonable explanation, her father was still very much with her in that moment. Who is to say otherwise? There are more things in heaven and earth…
We modern, mostly secular minded, reasonable, rational folks would do well to pay careful attention to those seemingly random, serendipitous moments that we all too often dismiss as a fluke but in actuality lie just beyond the border of our rational understanding. They may just be providing us with a little peek behind of the curtain and an intimation of a realm of being far more glorious than we are usually want to consider.