Second-Guessing God

Rabbi Richard Borah

The parsha of Chukas describes the details of the “para adumah” (the red heifer), whose ashes are required to remove “tumah” (ritual impurity) from a person who has come in contact with a dead body. The Torah states (Bamidbar 19):

A ritually clean person shall gather the cow's ashes and place them outside the camp in a clean place, and it shall be as a keepsake for the congregation of the children of Israel for sprinkling water, [used] for cleansing… A ritually clean person shall take the hyssop and dip it into the water and sprinkle it on the tent, on all the vessels, and on the people who were in it, and on anyone who touched the bone, the slain person, the corpse, or the grave.

The red heifer is described in the Talmud as the most enigmatic of the Torah’s laws and the only one that Shlomo HaMelech did not fathom. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik (“The Rav”), in the 11th chapter of the text “Man of Faith in the Modern World” (compiled by Rabbi Besdin) describes the laws of the red heifer and utilizes it to explore the idea of understanding the mitzvot.  He states: “Our Sages singled out the Parah Adumah (Red Heifer, Num. 19) ritual as the most mystifying of all hukim.” (Earlier in the essay, the Rav defines hukim as “statutes, which are usually defined as incomprehensible and about which our Sages warned that we may be tempted ‘to dismiss as meaningless’,) However, the Rav explains that the warning by the Torah Sages’ that the hukim may be impervious to understanding and the Sages statement that one must accept that “It is My (God’s) decree and you have no right to question it” does not mean that the meaningfulness of the mitzvah should not be explored, only that this exploration is limited in certain ways.  The Rav explains:


There are three types of questions we may ask about any phenomenon. “Why” probes motivations to establish why things are the way they are; “how” seeks explanations as to how they function effectively; and “what” looks for interpretations to establish meaningfulness.


The Rav clarifies that we are unable to legitimately ask the questions of “why” and “how” for hukim, such as the parah adumah. The “why” question is absurd to ask of God’s law.  He states:


Asking “why” God issued certain commandments is seeking to comprehend the unfathomable. It is more than simply a matter of being unable to comprehend God’s mind and motivation. It is more profound than that. When we ask “why” in the human context, we are truly asking “What motivated Him?” A correct reply would be that in order to achieve objective B, agent A had to be employed, because otherwise B would remain inaccessible. Obviously, one cannot reason in this manner about God, as though He had to overcome some inability or deficiency by using an intermediary agent. All is readily accessible and realized to Him. The best and only answer to any question about God’s motivation is “He willed it” gezerah hi milfanei (Maimonides “Guide for the Perplexed: 3:13). (Man of Faith in the Modern World, Chapter 9: pages 92-93)

The Rav quotes the section of the “Guide” where Maimonides (“Rambam”) clarifies the different positions on viewing God’s creation the world. He explains that God, being without deficiency, gains no benefit from the creation so to view God as doing something for an intended benefit to Him is incorrect (as is the motivation when man or another living thing does something). There is no benefit to God, who is perfect within Himself. For this reason the “why” question for God’s creation of the world or the mitzvot is untenable. The Rambam states:

Even if the universe exists for the sake of man, and the final end of man is, as has been said, to worship God, a question remains to be asked regarding the final end of his worship. For He, may He be exalted, would not acquire greater perfection if He were worshipped by all that He has created and were truly apprehended by them, nor would He be attained by a deficiency if nothing whatever existed except Him. If the answer is given that this is not with a view to His perfection, but to our perfection, for that is the most excellent thing for us-namely, our perfection - the same question follows necessarily: namely, what is the final end of our existence with that perfection?  Necessarily and obligatorily the argument must end with the answer being given that the final end is: God has wished it so, or: His wisdom has required this to be so. And this is the correct answer. Accordingly, you will find that the Sages of Israel have inserted into the text of their prayers (Neilah service on Yom Kippur): “Thou hast set man apart from the beginning and acknowledged him that he should stand before Thee.  Yet who shall say unto Thee, What dost Thou? And if he be righteous, what boon is this to Thee?’” Thus they have explicitly stated that there does not exist a final end, but only the Will alone. (Guide, 3:13)


 The Rav continues in the same essay, explaining that the “how” question is also unanswerable for hukim as their manner of impacting people, although assured, is not understandable by the human mind:

Asking “how” for hukim is also nonsensical. How does the sprinkling of watery ashes of the Parah Adumah cleanse the ritually unclean (Num. 19)? How does the goat sent to Azazel bring forgiveness on Yom Kippur (Lev. 16)? …We willingly and reverently accept the incomprehensible “how” even as we dutifully embraced the unfathomable “why”


In contrast to the illegitimacy of the “why” and “how” question, the “what” question is not only reasonable but necessary to properly perform any mitzvah. The Rav explains:

Remaining is the 3rd question, “what” which inquires about the meaningfulness of particular mitzvot to the individual and to society. This is a legitimate pursuit. Nay, it may even be meritorious to inquire, “How can I integrate and assimilate this mitzvah into my religious consciousness and outlook?” “What thoughts and emotions should I feel when the Parah Adumah chapter is read in the synagogue?” How can it help me achieve devekut, a greater closeness to God?” Such questions reflect the need to be intellectually and emotionally engaged in the performance of a mitzvah, even of hukim. One does not ask, “Why did God legislate Parah Adumah?” or “How does it purify the ritually defiled?” but “What is its spiritual message to me?” or “How can I, as a thinking and feeling person, assimilate it into my world outlook?”


The Rav holds that each individual, although not able to fathom the absolute truth of a mitzvah’s purpose, should still be cognizant and reflect on the inner experience that the mitzvah motivates in him or her. Although each person has a unique reaction to a mitzvah, reflection on this response is laudable and has  halakhic legitimacy in performing the mitzvah in an optimal manner.

This clarification of the superiority of the "what" over the "why" is further explored by the Rav in his essay "Kol Dodi Dofek" in which he posits that it is not useful or meaningful for man to ask why God allowed a Holocaust to occur, but only what is the moral challenge that it poses to  us in its aftermath to make it meaningful and to make use of the horror to improve ourselves and the world.  The Rav explains in the essay how this was the mistake and the eventual realization of Job in the wake of the personal tragedies that befell him.

To close, I would like to pose that perhaps this error of second-guessing God is one way of looking of Moshe's error in hitting the rock, as described in the parsha of Chukas.  The Torah states:

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:  “Take the staff and assemble the congregation, you and your brother Aaron, and speak to the rock in their presence so that it will give forth its water. You shall bring forth water for them from the rock and give the congregation and their livestock to drink.” Moses took the staff from before the Lord as He had commanded him.  Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock, and he said to them, “Now listen, you rebels, can we draw water for you from this rock?” Moses raised his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, when an abundance of water gushed forth, and the congregation and their livestock drank.  The Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.”

I am aware that “second-guessing” the thought process that brought Moshe Rebbenu to hit the rock instead of speaking to it, is foolish.  Although implying one knows what God's greatest prophet was feeling or thinking is less absurd that doing so for God, it is quite absurd nevertheless.  That said, I will just conclude that what is useful to me is to look at Moshe's error in hitting the rock as a mistake of second-guessing what God would have wanted him to do in this case.  Moshe was not defying God's will by hitting the rock instead of speaking to it as instructed.  But he made an incorrect assumption, perhaps due to anger, that God would approve of this variation in His instructions in this particular case.  For this second-guessing of God and the destructive impact it resulted in for the Jewish people and Moshe himself, Moshe was denied entry into the land of Israel.