V'etchanan | The Ultimate Wisdom
Updated: Apr 23
Can the nations of the world appreciate the uniqueness of our Torah?
The answer to this question is yes. In chapter four of this week’s parsha, Va’etchanan, it says, ‘…Safeguard and keep [this Torah], since this is your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the nations. They will hear all these rules and say, “This great nation is certainly a wise and understanding people” …What nation is so great that they have such righteous statutes and laws like this entire Torah?’
The parsha is telling us that the nations of the world looking objectively at the Torah acknowledge that it is a system of great wisdom and intellectual sophistication as well as a system with the highest level of righteousness and ethical standards. An objective outsider looking at the Torah can see this, and there are parts of the Torah which certainly any person can appreciate, no matter his or her background. (In fact, in a book I wrote a few years ago called Defending the Human Spirit, I discuss human rights from the Torah’s perspective and I demonstrate how the Torah has always been ahead of its time.) But there is a whole part of the Torah – what is known as the chukim – comprised of spiritual laws, the ultimate reasons for which are beyond human comprehension even to us, as insiders. The classic example is the mitzvah of para aduma, the red heifer, whose ashes were used to purify someone who had come in contact with a dead body and who wished to enter the Temple. Other examples are the laws of sha’atnez, of not mixing wool and linen in our clothing, and the laws of kashrut. People mistakenly think that the laws of kashrut have to do with health and hygiene; these are in fact spiritual laws which are beyond human comprehension to fully understand.
The rationale behind these and other laws are not easily understood. So how can we say that an outsider can appreciate the Torah, when we, as insiders, know that there are certain Torah laws which are beyond human logic?
We would understand if the Torah were to say that the nations of the world see the mishpatim high ethical and moral standards of the Torah, and that that is what makes them exclaim that we are a wise people. But here Moshe speaks specifically about how, when the nations hear of the chukim – the laws which are beyond human rationale – they will say, ‘what a wise and understanding people.’ How can the nations relate to chukim? How do we relate to chukim? How can we say that the nations of the world see the Torah’s wisdom, if there are aspects thereof which even we have difficulty understanding?
Same Torah, different worlds
The Dubna Magid offers an answer, quoting a passage from the Talmud which relates a debate that took place between Moshe and the angels when he went up the mountain to receive the Torah. The angels objected and said to G-d: how can You give this holy Torah to flesh and blood? G-d told Moses to answer back to the angels, and Moses then lists examples from the Ten Commandments to demonstrate how the angels could never keep them. For example, the first commandments says ‘I am the Lord your G-d who took you out of Egypt, from the house of slavery.’ Moses said to the angels, were you slaves in Egypt? It says, ‘six days you shall work and on the seventh day you shall rest’; do you work? It says, ‘Honour your father and mother’; do you have parents? Moshe goes through one commandment after another – do not murder, do not steal, do not commit adultery – and says none of these laws are remotely applicable to the angels and thus debunks the angels’ claim.
The Dubna Magid asks, what were the angels thinking? It’s obvious that the Torah was written for this world. Why did they object?
As was the Dubna Magid’s way in simplifying complex concepts, he answers with a parable: what is the difference between an ocean and a river? The main difference is the fact that when one stands on the shores of the ocean one cannot see the other side. The ocean is so vast that one cannot even imagine where the other side is, or that the same ocean is touching another continent. In contrast, with a river, one can usually see from one side to the other. The Dubna Magid says the Torah is like an ocean: one cannot see from one side to the other. It is so vast in terms of its spiritual reach and intellectual depth that we cannot grasp all of it. We see is only one aspect of it, only what is on our edge of the ocean. There are parts of it that are in the realm of the angels; in the upper world there are spiritual Torah concepts which we cannot even begin to understand. There are commandments that we see and understand, practical commandments like honouring one’s parents or the prohibition against murdering, but these actually have spiritual roots in the world of the angels and up there things look very different.
Thus, when the angels were looking at the Torah from their perspective, they saw a spiritual Torah and so they said to G-d, how can Torah apply down on earth? Moses then showed them the side of the Torah that they couldn’t even see or begin to comprehend. The angels could not relate to a world with parents, murder, adultery and theft; it’s beyond their framework of understanding. So, too, from our perspective, the Torah has many spiritual laws, like the para aduma, the laws of sha’atnez or kashrut, among many others. From our perspective, we see a particular manifestation of these commandments in this world. But we cannot even begin to understand the full meaning of these laws because they have roots in conceptual worlds which we as human beings cannot even begin to understand.
The debate between Moses and the angels was because each side had a different perspective, like standing on two different continents that touch two sides of a vast ocean. In the end G-d gave the Torah to us because we have free will to follow Him and fulfil His commandments, whereas the angels do not. But we must realise that the Torah’s mitzvot are rooted in lofty spiritual concepts which are beyond us, which apply in the physical world – even though we may not understand them.
Connecting to G-d’s world
The Dubna Magid gives another parable which helps us understand how to relate to the seemingly incomprehensible laws in the Torah: there was a simple farmer who wanted to marry off his daughter. He heard that there was a great rabbi in the region who was looking to find a shidduch, a match, for his son. So the farmer proposed the match to a shadchan, a matchmaker. At first the shadchan thought the idea will never work; the other side will never agree to the match because the two come from completely different worlds – she grew up on the farm, ignorant and illiterate, and he grew up in the house of study. But in the end the shadchan was able to convince the rabbi, the children married and all was well.
However shortly after the wedding, the father of the bride complained to the matchmaker that although the marriage was fine, his mechutan, the father of the groom, doesn’t talk to him at all. The shadchan relayed the farmer’s complaint to the rabbi and the rabbi responded thus: when you came to suggest this shidduch we realised that we come from different worlds and that it was going to require a bit of a leap to make this marriage happen. We made the leap. But we are from different worlds – he on the farm and I in the Beit Midrash – and I have nothing to talk to him about. There is no connection between our worlds. He can’t even read and write and words and learning are my whole life. He should be happy I consented to the marriage; asking that we talk is expecting too much.
The Dubna Magid says that this is analogous to the relationship between us and G-d. As human beings, mere mortals who are flesh and blood, we got the ultimate match – G-d’s precious Torah. We connect with the Torah and it is indeed an incredible gift, but it comes from His world which is entirely different from ours. The fact that He gave us His Torah enables us to connect with Him, but there can never be a complete connection; inevitably there will be parts of the Torah that we won’t understand because it comes from G-d. Parts of the Torah are revealed to us but parts of it will always have a certain degree of mystery because it belongs to G-d’s spiritual world that we do not understand and cannot even begin to appreciate.
The ultimate wisdom
The message of these two parables is that there are parts of the Torah whose wisdom we can see clearly, and we can understand how they relate to our world. But there is also a spiritual dimension of the Torah, which is beyond human comprehension. The fact that the Torah was given by G-d means that there must be parts of it that are beyond us because G-d is so beyond our level of existence. If the Torah were manmade, we would rightfully demand to be able to understand every part of it and dispense with any part that does not seem logical. But the Torah is G-d-given, and therefore when we struggle with parts of it that seem beyond human rationale, we should take comfort in the fact that the parts of the Torah that we don’t understand – the chukim – have to be there. We do not accept the Torah despite the fact that there are parts we don’t understand; Rather, we accept it precisely because of those parts, for it is the chukim which show us that the Torah comes from G-d.
Ultimately, we submit to the Torah because it comes from G-d, and we must not lose sight of that. Unfortunately, sometimes we try to ‘market’ Torah by showing how rational it is that we actually miss the most important point and that is that the Torah is the wisdom of Hashem. We think that in order to accept the Torah fully we must be able to understand all of it and be able to explain it in rational human terms. But it is actually irrational to try to understand the Torah in human terms alone, because it comes from G-d and therefore there will always be a ‘Divine unknown’ within it. This is not something to rebel against but rather something to celebrate because this is what makes the Torah unique.
The Torah is not just another type of wisdom. When we reduce the Torah to being just another school of thought, we undermine its significance and uniqueness. We can think of Shabbat as an incredible day and there are indeed many insights as to how Shabbat improves our quality of life; we can explain how the laws of kashrut elevate the concept of eating, and how the entire system works to enhance what it means to be a human being; we can explain how all of the commandments uplift us and make our lives meaningful and inspiring, but ultimately we return to the same point: the real reason we keep the commandments is because Hashem said so. When we are bold enough to accept that and proud enough to admit that, then the nations of the world as objective outsiders – and we ourselves as part of the system – can look at the Torah and say, this is true wisdom. Divine origin is the unique quality of the Torah over all the manmade wisdoms of this world. We need to be proud and open about this quality. If we are just claiming ordinary human wisdom then many people claim such wisdom in this world and Torah is not special.
The ultimate wisdom is knowing the limitations of wisdom. It means knowing that a system given to us by Hashem has grandeur and mystique to it because parts of it are beyond human comprehension. It is only logical that the Torah contains things which are beyond us; if it didn’t, it could not be from Hashem. When we recognise that we are limited in our understanding of G-d and his Torah, that is when we become truly wise.