Acharei Mot: Sometimes exceptions are unacceptable
Sometimes, exceptions are unacceptable. In Parshat Acharei Mot Kedoshim (Vayikra 18:5), we are given this mitzvah:
“Ushmartem et chukotai v’et mishpatai.” – “You must safeguard my laws and ordinances,”
“Asher ya’aseh otam bnei adam vechai bahem.” – “which people should perform in order to live by them.”
We are being instructed here about chukotai and mishpatai. What’s the difference between a chok and a mishpat, a law and an ordinance? The chok, the law, is something for which we don’t necessarily have any logic. It’s a law from Hashem, such as the laws of kosher food, or the laws of shatnez. Does it make any sense to us? No. But we keep it, because God knows best.
The term chok comes from the word chokek, which means to engrave in stone. And in the same way as when something is engraved, it’s permanent – you can’t do anything to change it. So too, we appreciate that the chukim are non negotiable, because Hashem knows best.
A mishpat, however, is very different. The mishpat is a rule, a mitzvah, which makes sense. You mustn’t murder, you mustn’t steal. We need to have ethics and morals. They make perfect sense.
Rav Soloveitchik asked the following question. Why, then, are we told, “Ushmartem et chukotai v’et mishpatai?” – “You must safeguard my laws and my ordinances.” Why both together? Surely we should be encouraged only to safeguard the laws. The rest makes sense.
Rav Soloveitchik then explains that when it comes to a mishpat, an ordinance, that’s when I might feel that I know the reason, and justify my actions on the basis that that reason doesn’t apply to me right now. I’m an exception, so I can opt out. That’s exactly what King Solomon did: The Torah tells us that kings cannot have too many wives. But King Solomon said, “I’m all right, I’m very clever, I’m pious, this won’t affect me.” And sadly, that is what brought him to his downfall.
Therefore, Rav Soloveitchik teaches that we must safeguard the chukim and the mishpatim, the laws and the ordinances. And in that way, “asher aseh otam vechai bahem,” – through performing all of Hashem’s laws, we will be able to live wonderful, meaningful and joyous lives. Because in truth, sometimes, there’s just no room for an exception.