|Va'etchanan 5769 - Chukkim and Mishpatim - The Nuts and Bolts of Torah Observance|
by Rabbi Stuart Dauermann
Some people say, "Why do you talk about Torah obedience? Isn't it enough that I try and live by the Ten Commandments?"
Of course the answer to this is "Isn't it enough for what?" First, let's not be confused: Torah obedience is not about "getting saved," nor is it about going to heaven or keeping God happy. It is about the lifestyle that God gave the Jewish people as a means whereby we might honor Him in the midst of the earth . . . period. Neither is this kind of Torah obedience the province of all peoples on the face of the earth-rather it is specifically God's covenant with Israel. "The Torah Moshe commanded us as an inheritance for the community of Ya'akov" (Devarim 33:4).
Parshat Va'etchanan (Devarim 3:23-7:11), among many other passages in Scripture, speaks directly to this issue of honoring God when it records Moses saying, "Surely I have taught you statutes and judgments, just as the LORD my God commanded me, that you should act according to them in the land which you go to possess. Therefore be careful to observe them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples who will hear all these statutes, and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the LORD our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? And what great nation is there that has such statutes and righteous judgments as are in all this law which I set before you this day?" (Devarim 4:5-8).
The keeping of Torah marks the Jews out as a wise and understanding people in the midst of the earth, the people of a God who is near to us whenever we pray to Him, and a nation whose obedience and unique way of life marks us out as having righteous statutes and judgments.
This means of course that our keeping of Torah must be indicative of wisdom and understanding rather than of weirdness and strangeness. And our obedience must demonstrate that the way of life we have been given by God is righteous-again, not simply strange.
For many, this would appear to give priority to the moral implications of Torah as in keeping "the weightier matters of the Torah -- justice, mercy, trust" (Matt 23:23). However, contrary to the arguments some might muster, this prioritizing of moral, relational matters does not nullify ritual law at all. In the same context Yeshua says this: "Woe to you hypocritical Torah-teachers and P'rushim! You pay your tithes of mint, dill and cumin; but you have neglected the weightier matters of the Torah -- justice, mercy, trust. These are the things you should have attended to -- without neglecting the others!" He tells the Torah-teachers and P'rushim that they ought not to neglect their ritual minutiae, here, by the way, matters strictly of halachic custom rather than stipulations of written Torah.
This brings us to a kal v'chomer argument-one from the lesser case to the greater. If Yeshua said we ought not to neglect matters of ritual custom, what Jewish life calls "d-rabbanan"-the teachings of the rabbis-then how much MORE ought we not to neglect matters stipulated in Torah, termed in our tradition, "d'oraita."
Returning now to Va-etchanan and the matter of whether adhering to the Ten Commandments is enough, let us continue to follow Moses' argument. Moses never admonishes the people to keep the Ten Commandments (more properly, "the Ten Words"), but rather to keep the chukkim and mishpatim (statutes and judgments or ordinances): "Now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the judgments which I teach you to observe, that you may live, and go in and possess the land which the LORD God of your fathers is giving you. You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you" (Deut. 4:1-2).
That he never admonishes them to keep the Ten Words but rather to keep the chukkim and mishpatim is likely due to the fact that life is not lived in generalities, but in details. There is no other way to live than in specifics. One does not get out of bed approximately at 7:00 AM, but there is a specific moment when our head lifts off the pillow and our feet touch the floor-a specific moment that could be marked with a chronometer. One may speak in retrospect of having gotten up this morning about 7:00 AM, but in the doing of it, we cannot get up approximately at such and such time, but at a specific moment. And so it is with all of life. Life is in the details.
This is why the Torah and halachic discussion deal with details, but we must remember as well to not lose our sense of proportion. Our keeping of Torah must be to the effect that we will appear to others to be a wise and understanding people with a God near to us, who gave us a unique way of life marking us out as having his righteous statutes and judgments. And it is a unique way of life weighted toward justice, mercy and trust in this God. That is where the center of gravity of our way of life is to be found. And the way we get to the center of Torah is by remembering it IS the center, and by implementing attention to details with that always in view.
I must not hesitate to remark here that Yeshua is of course at the center of our Messianic Jewish consciousness. He is not the nullification of Torah, nor the replacement of Torah but rather the embodiment of that righteousness toward which Torah points-it is in this sense that "the goal at which the Torah aims is the Messiah, who offers righteousness to everyone who trusts" [Romans 10:4]. So, our faith in Yeshua does not replace the imperative for Jews to communally honor God in the context of Torah-living. I like the way MJTI expresses this balance:
Moses refers to the chukkim and mishpatim-the statutes and ordinances-by the collective term "Torah." See Devarim 4:8: "What great nation is there that has laws and rulings [chukkim and mishpatim] as just as this entire Torah which I am setting before you today?" So, we can see that living as Torah-true Jews means living by the chukkim and mishpatim-the statutes and ordinances of Torah, as mediated to us through communal discussion and precedent. The Torah was not given to us as individuals but was given to a people, the people of Israel. If we would keep the chukkim and mishpatim, it is the height of chutzpah for us to simply ignore or discount over three millennia of communal discussion on what it means to honor and obey God in these ways.
We have already seen that Moses never admonishes the Israelites to keep the Ten Words, but rather the chukkim and mishpatim, because life is in the details-in the specifics. This interpretation is further illustrated in Devarim 4:13-14: "He proclaimed his covenant to you, which he ordered you to obey, the Ten Words; and he wrote them on two stone tablets. At that time ADONAI ordered me to teach you laws and rulings, so that you would live by them in the land you are entering in order to take possession of it." It is clear from this passage that the way in which one honors the order to obey the Ten Words is by keeping the laws and rulings---the chukkim and mishpatim. Chukkim are commandments for which no reason may be discerned nor is any given, such as the kosher laws. Mishpatim are those commandments for which reasons may be discerned or for which reasons are given, such as the prohibition against stealing or murder. There is a third category, eidot, those commands which memorialize or represent something, such as the command to eat matzah at Pesach, the command to put on tefillin, to observe shabbat, etc.
This understanding of Torah-true living as keeping of God's specific chukkim and mishpatim is attested to in the Book of Malachi 4:4, a passage which points to Messianic times: "Remember the Torah of Moshe my servant, which I enjoined on him at Horev, laws and rulings [chukkim and mishpatim] for all Isra'el."
Are we remembering, or are we trying to forget?
Questions For Your Consideration