Mitzvot-God’s Royal Decrees or Prescriptions or Both?
Rav Mordechai Gershon
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Mitzvot-God’s Royal Decrees or Prescriptions or Both?
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If you go out to war against your enemies, and the Lord, your God, will deliver him into your hands, and you take his captives, and you see among the captives a beautiful woman (yefat toar) and you desire her, you may take (her) for yourself as a wife.
Scripture speaks against the evil inclination, for if the Holy One, blessed be He, would not permit her to him, he would take her illicitly. (However, the Torah teaches that) if he marries her, he will come to despise her, as it says after this “If a man has two wives, one beloved and the other despised..” [v.15]; moreover, he will father a rebellious son [v.18]. This is the reason for the juxtaposition of the verses. [Rashi]
Based upon Rashi’s comments, God does not approve of the matter of the yefat toar, and thus “a sin brings another sin” [Pirkei Avot, 4:2] so that the Israelite will ultimately hate the woman and she will bear him a rebellious son.
At first glance, Rashi’s comments are surprising. After all, the Israelite soldier acted within the parameters of the Halacha. Moreover, the Israelite did everything the Torah requires of him in this matter; he brought the yefat toar into his home, allowed her to cry for her parents for a full month [pesukim (verses) 12-13], he did everything according to the Book. Why, then, is the Israelites deserving of such punishment – hating the woman and having her bear him a rebellious son?
Medicine and Decrees
In order to answer our question, we must understand that there are two aspects to observance of mitzvot.
On one hand, mitzvot can be seen as comparable to a physician’s instructions – they are beneficial objectively and in reality. When a physician instructs a patient to take a particular medication and to refrain from certain foods, there is a logical reason. Taking the medication prescribed and recovering from the illness is not a reward for positive behavior, rather a natural outcome; antibiotics cure maladies. On the other hand, if a diabetic ingests too much sugar, his pancreas will fail. His body’s reaction to sugar is not “punishment” administered by the physician, but the natural result of the patient’s behavior.
Mitzvot also convey this aspect. Zohar refers to mitzvot as “six-hundred and thirteen pieces of advice.” God gave us mitzvot, which are recommendations and guidance concerning appropriate behavior. One who behaves in accordance with God’s “recommendations” will be blessed, since this is the reality of the world. We do not always understand why mitzvot are objectively and realistically good, but we are similar to the patient who is unable to determine for himself which is the proper medication and he must therefore ask a physician.
However, mitzvot have an additional aspect, being comparable to a monarch’s decrees. A monarch’s decree is not necessarily connected to objective reality, and the reward for fulfillment or punishment for violation of the decree is not inherently related to the behavior itself. For example, a monarch may decree that anyone making noise on Mondays at 3:00 PM will be incarcerated. Clearly, there is no inherent connection between noise making and incarceration. It is only the royal decree which makes imprisonment the consequence of noise making. As we shall see, at times the laws of the Torah are comparable to royal decrees – we are to observe mitzvot because it is God’s decree, even if there is no apparent connection between performance of the mitzva and reality.
Set Up Markers for Yourself [Yirmiyahu 31:20]
There are situations in which only the second aspect, that of royal decrees, applies.
Midrash Sifrei [Parashat Eikev, 43] elucidates the posuk: "הציבי לך ציונים" (“Set up markers for yourself”) to mean that mitzva observance outside Eretz Yisrael is merely a “marker,” a way to remember how to fulfill mitzvot upon return to the Land.
Ramban’s opinion, based upon the Sifrei quoted above, is that essentially, observance of mitzvot is mandatory only within Eretz Yisrael, abroad it is intended to keep us aware of how to observe mitzvot when we return to the Land. If Am Yisrael (the Nation of Israel) did not put on tefilin for the almost two-thousand years of exile, it would not remember how to perform this mitzva within the Land. If we had not taken lulav and etrog, we would not have known the proper definition of “the fruit of the hadar tree” (etrog) or “a branch of a braided tree” (hadass) [Vayikra 23:40]. This, asserts Ramban, is the reason to fulfill mitzvot outside Eretz Yisrael, but there is no true inherent obligation to fulfill mitzvot outside the Land.
The approach of Ramban/Sifrei is quite difficult. There are mitzvot which are dependent upon the Land, such as shemitta and yovel, which clearly apply only within Eretz Yisrael, but why should mitzvot such as tefilin, which have no clear connection o the Land apply only within her?
Rabbi Yosef Leib Bloch (1860 – 1929, Rosh Yeshiva of Telz) suggests that Ramban/Sifrei do not intend that there is no obligation whatsoever to fulfill mitzvot outside the Land, rather that outside the Land, mitzvot convey only the aspect of royal decrees. Outside Eretz Yisrael, we are obligated to fulfill mitzvot because they are God’s decrees, but the aspect of connection between mitzvot and objective goodness, as in our analogy to medication, exists only in Eretz Yisrael. It is this aspect which Ramban/Sifrei which is lacking outside the Land and for which mitzva observance abroad is merely “markers.” Upon returning to the Land, it will be possible to fulfill mitzvot fully, with both aspects, as Divine decrees and as a physician’s prescription.
The Forefathers Observed Torah
There are also situations in which only the aspect of a prescription applies to mitzva observance. Chazal (Our Sages) [Gemara Yoma 28b] taught that the Forefathers observed all of Torah. Obviously, the Forefathers lived before Torah had been given at Sinai, therefore, necessarily, the aspect of royal decree did not apply to mitzvot. Why did the Forefathers observe mitzvot without being commanded to do so? According to what we have said, the reason is that mitzvot are objectively and realistically good, as the physician’s prescription. This and not the aspect of royal decree pertained to mitzvot during the lifetimes of the Forefathers.
Based upon these thoughts and the innovative approach of Rabbi Bloch, we can understand an additional comment of Ramban in a new light. In Parashat Toledot [Bereishit 26:5], Ramban asks how Ya’akov could have married two sisters or Amram married his aunt Yocheved; each of which is a marriage forbidden by the Torah. The answer, Ramban suggests, is that the protagonists were outside Eretz Yisrael at the time, and the Forefathers observed Torah only within the Land. This answer requires elucidation, since in Rabbi Bloch’s analysis, Ramban agrees that there is an obligation to fulfill outside the Land. However, the Forefathers were not obligated to fulfill mitzvot in the aspect of royal decree, but only in the aspect of prescription, and this aspect does not apply outside the Land; thus they did not fulfill mitzvot outside her.
Concerning yefat toar, there is a certain parallel to the times of the Forefathers. Realizing the influence of man’s evil inclination, the Torah did not forbid the matter, knowing that the Israelite soldier would likely act illicitly, as Chazal said [Gemara Kiddushin 22ab] “It is better for Israel to eat the flesh of animals about to die which has been ritually slaughtered than the flesh of dying animals which have perished.” Nonetheless, on the level of objective reality, taking the yefat toar has negative influences. The matter of yefat toar does not have the aspect of the royal decree, since the King permitted it; but the aspect of prescription still applies. However, in this instance the “Physician” chose not to write the prescription, deciding that this is the lesser of the evils. Thus, one who takes a yefat toar is likely to suffer the negative consequences and have her bear him a rebellious son, having done something which is objectively bad. Hating the yefat toar and having a rebellious son are not “punishment” but consequences of having taken her. Just as one who jumps off a roof will be hurt when he lands and one who ingests poison will be harmed, so it is with one who takes a yefat toar. There is no punishment involved; it is simply applying the laws of nature.
We have seen that there are two aspects to observance of mitzvot:
1) Royal decrees;
2) Physician’s prescription.
There are instances, such as outside Eretz Yisrael, in which only the aspect of royal decree applies and others, such as the times of the Forefathers, or the matter of yefat toar, in which the only aspect which applies is the physician’s prescription. In the latter instances, though the King did not decree, one who acts in accordance with God’s will benefits, and one who does not lose.
There are instances, such as within Eretz Yisrael, in which both aspects apply. The purpose of fulfilling mitzvot outside the Land is to reach Eretz Yisrael and fulfill them completely – in both aspects.
Thank God, we are privileged to observe mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael, fulfilling God’s will on a complete level – in which their fulfillment has direct impact on reality.
May it be God’s will that we continue to fulfill mitzvot in Eretz Yisrael, thereby increasing goodness within the world.