The Parsha begins “this is the chok of the Torah” and proceeds to discuss the laws of Parah Adumah (the red heifer), a mitzvo which is impossible to understand according to human logic. The Ohr HaChaim Hakadosh asks why this mitzvo is called the ‘chok of the Torah’, it would have been more appropriate to say ‘this is the chok of tahara’. He answers that the Torah is alluding to us that if we fulfil this mitzvo even though it has no reason to it, then the Passuk considers it as if we have fulfilled the whole Torah, because fulfilling a mitzva without reason shows that we are unconditionally willing to follow Hashem’s Ratson.
Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz zt”l explains that when a person fulfils a mitzvo that has an obvious reason to it, it is still not clear that he is prepared to fulfil the Torah purely because Hashem commanded it. It could be that he is doing it because it makes sense to him. However, once he performs a mitzvo that is without logic that proves that he keeps all the mitzvos, not because they make sense to him, but because Hashem commanded them.
This is a fundamental principle of the Torah - we accept that we must follow Hashem’s will without making any cheshbonos according to our own logic. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l writes that this was Korach’s mistake in his theological attacks against Moshe Rabbeinu. He attempted to expose the fallacy of the mitzvos of tsitsit and mezuza by showing their illogical nature. He argued that the reason for wearing a thread of techeiles on each corner is because it resembles the sea, which resembles the sky, which resembles the Throne of Glory. Based on this reasoning Korach argued that one who wears a garment of techeiles should not need a thread of it on its corner because there is ample reminder of the sea, sky and the throne of glory in the actual garment. In reality, however, the mitzvo applies in all cases, even where the given reason has no apparent application because ultimately all mitzvos must be observed and should be viewed as a gezeira that cannot be questioned.
In light of this principle, a difficulty arises: Many of the greatest Torah scholars such as the Rambam, Sefer HaChinuch and, more recently, Rav Hirsch zt”l went to great lengths to explain the taamey hamitzvos - the reasons behind the mitzvos. Yet it is clear from Parah Adumah that the ultimate reason behind each mitzvo is beyond human understanding; Shlomo Hamelech had thought that he understood the deepest reason for every mitzvo until he came to Parah Aduma which he could not fathom. He then realised that he did not truly understand the definitive reason for any of the mitzvos. In light of this, how can anyone claim to understand a taam for any given mitzvo if Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest man, could not?!
My Rebbe answers by explaining that the commentaries are not claiming to understand the ultimate reason behind the mitzvo - we can have no concept of the genuine reason for any mitzvo - that is something that belongs in the highest olamos. However, this does not mean that the ‘taamey hamitzvos’ have no truth to them. Hashem, in his infinite wisdom ‘arranged’ it so that each mitzvo can make sense on many different levels of existence. For example they can help a person develop desirable character traits and can enhance relationships.
We see this in many mitzvos: The laws of tumah and tahara are among the most difficult to fathom. However, the most relevant of these laws today, taharas mishpacha, has obvious benefits. The Gemara explains that it is very beneficial for husband and wife to separate for a certain time every month so that they can avoid the problem of lack of excitement in the relationship . Based on this Gemara, the Sefer Hachinuch writes that this advantage is one of the taamey hamitzvos of taharas mishpacha . This does not mean that the reason we keep taharas mishpacha is because it helps one’s relationship, however, it is no co-incidence that it does so, Hashem clearly ‘intended’ it to be that way.
Another example of this is the mitzvo of shechita. The Ramban writes that it does not effect Hashem whether we kill an animal by shechita, by nichor or by strangling. However, Hashem instructed us to kill the animal in the least cruel way in order to teach us the mida of rachmanus even at the time of killing . Again this does not mean that we slaughter animals the way we do because it will help us be more merciful, we do it that way purely because Hashem commanded us to. Nevertheless this does not take away from the fact that Hashem also intended for us to develop favourable midos through observing the mitzvos.
Thus, notwithstanding the fact that we cannot fathom the ultimate reason for the mitzvos, we can nonetheless understand taamim to the mitzvos that are emes on a certain level. With this understanding we can now appreciate why the commentaries held it was so important to teach us taamey hamitzvos. It is true that we keep the mitzvos solely because Hashem instructed us to, however, it is not sufficient that we merely do the mitzvo robotically, without any thought as to what we are doing. Mitzvos are intended to change us into better people, and the way that they do this is through the taamey hamitzvos. The Sefer Hachinuch tells us the shoresh to every mitzvo - why? So that we can have an idea of what we are supposed to gain from performing this mitzvo and we can work towards achieveing that benefit.
The issur of lashon hara demonstrates this idea. Rabbeinu Yonah explains the taam of this issur with a maaseh. A chacham was walking with his talmidim when they came across the corpse of a dead dog. One of the talmidim commented on how disgusting this corpse was. The chacham replied that it had very nice, white teeth . He was teaching his talmid the mida of focussing on the good. This, Rabbeinu Yonah writes, is the taam of shemiras halashon. There is no actual issur of lashon hara for focussing on the unpleasant aspects of a dead dog, however one who sees things in a negative fashion misses the point of the issur of lashon hara. It is not enough merely to not speak badly about others, the root of the mitzvo is to focus on the good in people. In refraining from speaking badly about others, one should strive to transform himself into a person with a positive outlook on life.
Learning from the taamey hamitzvos is not merely a profitable exercise, it is essential to one’s relationship with Hashem. The Ramban in the end of Parshas Bo explains why there are so many mitzvos that relate to Yetsias Mitzrayim. He says that their purpose is to instill in us a deep sense of emuna in Hashem and His hashgacha . It is not sufficient merely to put a mezuza on the doorposts of one’s home and kiss it now and again. We are supposed to see the mezuza and be reminded of the message inside it, that Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim and is continually guiding us in our lives.
The Ramban goes even further and says that, in reality the tachlis of all the mitzvos is to bring us close to Hashem and acknowledge that He is our creator. “This is the purpose of creation, for there is no other reason for our creation, and the only thing that Hashem wants from us is that we know and acknowledge Him. ” This process, whereby a person is brought closer to Hashem through observance of the Mitzvos is not automatic. If a person commits mitzvos out of habit then, although he may have technically fulfilled them, he has not utilised them to achieve their purpose; closeness to Hashem. Some mitzvos do this by directly arousing a person to awareness of Hashem and some do it by encouraging development of certain midos. But the common denominator of all of them is developing our emuna.
We have seen how parah aduma teaches us that we are obligated to fulfil mitzvos without questioning their logic, and yet at the same time, we are also obligated to understand the taamim of the mitzvos so that we can grow from them in the intended way.
A recommended way to achieve this is to spend some time analysing the taamey hamitzvos; there are many sources, one can look to the earlier sources such as Rambam in Moreh Nevuchim and Sefer Hachinuch or turn to later commentaries such as Rav Hirsch or Rav Aryeh Kaplan zt”l. By doing this we can remind ourselves that each mitzvo has taamim that we are supposed to be aware of and use to grow from.
This is not an easy task because there is a strong yetser hara that allows us to do mitzvos as long as we miss their intended tachlis. The story is told of a Gadol who visited a home for the Friday night meal. As he and his host entered the house, they saw that the challah had not been covered as is the minhag. The host, upset at this failing in front of his honoured guest, proceeded to berate his hapless wife in front of his guest. After this outburst, the Gadol gently took him aside and asked him if he knew why we cover the challah? The reason is so as not to embarrass it when we bless on the wine before it. By embarrassing his wife the host demonstrated that he had clearly not internalised the message of this minhag. All the mitzvos have internal messages - it is up to us to learn them and use them in their intended way.