Because Hashem Said So!
Va’t’lamdeim chukei chayim, kein t’chaneinu u’s’lamdeinu
And whom You taught the decrees of life, may You be equally gracious to us and teach us.
There are different types of mitzvos. For many of them, we know only a part of their underlying reasons. For many, we would understand that this is the “right thing to do” even if we were not commanded (“mishpatim”). However, “chukim” are different; they are mitzvos for which we do not know any part of their underlying reasons and we would not think of observing them on our own.
The Gemara (Kiddushin 31a) states that one who performs a mitzvah as a result of being commanded is greater than one who performs a mitzvah voluntarily, without being commanded. Today, most people would think the opposite: Isn’t it better if I think of doing this action myself? The lesson the Gemara teaches us is that it is a greater level to perform mitzvos purely because I believe in and trust Hashem and because He has commanded me to do this. When I perform the mitzvah without regard to whether it “makes sense” to me or not, that is the highest level of performance, and that is what will bring me closest to Hashem. When I do things purely based on my intellect, that may be serving myself rather than serving Hashem.
Although there are other understandings of how the Avos came to perform the mitzvos on their own, the following is what I understand, based on the s’farim listed at the end of this paragraph. The Avos performed the mitzvos based on their understanding as taught to them by Hashem, because the Torah had not yet been given, so they were not commanded. Their mitzvos should really be called mishpatim. They merited that their mitzvos were labeled as chukim (a higher level) instead, because everything they did was as a result of their bitachon in Hashem. This teaches us that we, too, need to perform the mitzvos as a result of our bitachon in Hashem and our desire to fulfill His mitzvos whether we understand them or not. When we perform a mitzvah without regard to whether we understand or don’t understand, we are coming closer to Hashem to a greater extent, since we are not doing what we want but rather doing what Hashem wants, strictly because He told us to. [Based on Rinas Chaim and Tefilas Avigdor]
Hashem taught our Avos “chukei chayim.” Performing Hashem’s will as a result of their bitachon is what gave them life in this world and in the eternal world. Hashem taught chukei chayim to our Avos so that they may do His will with a complete heart (“laasos r’tzoncha b’leivav shaleim”). We ask that Hashem teach us, as well, for “free” (“chinam”) even though we may not deserve it. May we be zocheh to grow in our levels of bitachon, and to learn and perform mitzvos with the ultimate goal of “laasos r’tzoncha b’leivav shaleim.”
To access print versions of previous Tefilah segments,
please visit OU Torah’s Search portal, select the Topic of “Tefillah,”
and then select “Weekly Tefilah Focus” from the Series list.
For Rabbi Mordechai Finkelman’s video and audio shiurim, which are based on our Tefilah Focus segments but also include his insightful and inspiring additions, please visit TorahAnytime.com or simply search for “TorahAnytime Rabbi Finkelman.”
You can direct any questions or comments to Eliezer Szrolovits at 917-551-0150.