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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Switcharoo (Post 5: Philosophy)

The last Rambam in תמורה discusses the issue of positing philosophical reasons for mitzvos:
אף על פי שכל חוקי התורה גזירות הם כמו שביארנו בסוף מעילה. ראוי להתבונן בהן וכל מה שאתה יכול ליתן לו טעם תן לו טעם. הרי אמרו חכמים הראשונים שהמלך שלמה הבין רוב הטעמים של כל חוקי התורה
Even though mitzvos have an independent halachic structure, it is still appropriate to spend time trying to understand the philosophical reasons behind them. "Anything for which you are able to give a reason, you should give it a reason".  The expression and the imperative to give mitzvos a reason sounds funny. What is the Rambam getting at?

Our Rebbe and Teacher, Rabbi Yisrael Chait, explained as follows. Ordinarily, it is not appropriate to just "give an explanation" because you are able to. In halacha, for instance, a svara should be well grounded (muchach), not just based upon speculation.  In the area of reasons for mitzvos, the Rambam is underscoring the importance of "giving reasons" for all mitzvos for which you have the ability. Why should this be?

The answer to this question goes to the heart of the Torah's distinction and its attitude to mitzvos. Mitzvos are not ritualistic performances whose value lies in the ceremonial feelings they engender. Rather, each mitzvah represents an idea (or many ideas) which is expressed through an action. The value of the mitzvos is primarily in bringing the person in contact with their ideas, and thereby inculcating ideas and knowledge into every aspect of one's life. If a person does a mitzvah without any knowledge regarding its reason, he cannot help but relate to it on some level as an empty ritualistic performance (the last Rambam in מעילה cautions against such an attitude).

In order to avoid this, it is necessary for him to have some true idea associated with his performance. As such, it is appropriate to try to give reasons for all mitzvos. Even if you are not confident that this is the reason (in fact, there is nothing to say that there is only one correct reason), it is legitimate to engage in a degree of speculation in suggesting a reason for the mitzvah. In doing so, you accomplish the objective of the mitzvos to bring true Torah ideas into your life.

The Rambam continues to discuss reasons for some particulars of the institutions of תמורה and פדיון (redemption).
יראה לי שזה שאמר הכתוב והיה הוא ותמורתו יהיה קדש. כענין שאמר ואם המקדיש יגאל את ביתו ויסף חמישית כסף ערכך עליו. ירדה תורה לסוף מחשבת האדם וקצת יצרו הרע. שטבע של אדם נוטה להרבות קניינו ולחוס על ממונו ואע"פ שנדר והקדיש אפשר שחזר בו וניחם ויפדה בפחות משוויו אמרה תורה אם פדה לעצמו יוסיף חומש
The Rambam draws a parallel between the reasoning behind two different mitzvos in the Torah: (i) the law concerning one who redeems his own object that only has a monetary sanctity (קדושת דמים); (ii) the prohibition of exchanging an animal whose very substance is designated as a karbun (קדושת הגוף).

When you redeem an object of monetary sanctity, you must add on an extra 1/5 above the market value of the object.  This is because the Torah knows the psychology of a person.  Even though a person is generous in the moment when he makes a donation to mikdash, after time he often comes to regret it and tries to "cut his losses" by redeeming it for less than its true worth.  Therefore, the Torah demands that he add a 1/5.

The Rambam goes on to explain the ostensibly strange prohibition against upgrading a consecrated animal, which is not subject to being redeemed for money:
וכן אם הקדיש בהמה קדושת הגוף שמא יחזור בו וכיון שאינו יכול לפדותה יחליפנה בפחותה ממנה. ואם תתן לו רשות להחליף הרע ביפה יחליף היפה ברע ויאמר טוב הוא. לפיכך סתם הכתוב בפניו שלא יחליף. וקנסו אם החליף ואמר והיה הוא ותמורתו יהיה קדש. וכל אלו הדברים כדי לכוף את יצרו ולתקן דעותיו. ורוב דיני התורה אינן אלא עצות מרחוק מגדול העצה לתקן הדעות וליישר כל המעשים
In truth, the Torah has no qualms with a person upgrading the animal.  However, the Torah understood the psyche of man, and knew that if it let him upgrade the animal, he would come to downgrade it.  Therefore, the Torah prohibited all forms of exchange, and fined the person who tries to substitute by rendering both animals consecrated.

The distinction between how the Torah handled  redemption (by allowing it with the stipulation that the original owner add a 1/5) and substitution (by prohibiting it altogether) shows the depth of the Torah's insight into the subtle psychological thoughts of a person.

The monetary value that an object is worth can fluctuate within a certain realm.  A person can rationalize to himself that an object that he just donated whose worth is 100, is only really worth 80, but he cannot rationalize it down to 50.  By demanding he add a 1/5, the Torah ensures that he doesn't give less than the true amount. Nobody will redeem his object in order to rip off the mikdash.

However, substitution is of a qualitative nature.  If the Torah allowed you to substitute for a better animal, you would come to rationalize why an inferior animal is really better because of some specific feature that it has.  In a qualitative substitution, the Torah had no recourse but to prohibit the category as a whole, in order to prevent the person from committing a grave sin of stealing from God.

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