I like to think of myself as a fairly logical person. After all, I did pass my university logic class with flying colors and logic games were so great that they made the LSAT seem fun. For me, that’s part of the appeal of Judaism – logic, arguments, explanations – Judaism just makes sense! Or does it?
In this week’s parsha we encounter quite a few laws that don’t seem to have any logic at all. In fact, the laws concerning the red heifer are downright paradoxical. How can it make sense that something that contaminates the Kohen is used to purify the people? Why should contact with a dead body – any dead body, even that of your parents or, G-d forbid, your child – make you spiritually impure? And how is it that contact – even a simple touch – with a spiritually impure person could make someone else spiritually impure? Really, these, and many other laws in the Torah, don’t seem to make any sense. They’re certainly illogical. So what’s going on?
When Rabbi Ben and I first went to India, he warned me: “In India, the logic is that there is no logic.” It didn’t take long to understand what he meant. Even simple tasks that we take for granted in the first world suddenly became a huge challenge. I could write pages on end about the crazy experiences we had, but Rabbi Ben often tells a story from his first (solo) trip to India that I think illustrates the point best of all. One day, he went to get some papaya juice. He was the only one in the shop, but after 20 minutes of waiting, he still didn’t have his juice. He went up to the owner, saying, “If you’re waiting for the papaya to grow, it’s ok, I’ll get something else!” “Oh, so sorry sir,” said the proprietor with a waggle of his head, “but we have no papaya today. Someone has gone to market to purchase one.” What normal restaurant would keep its only customer waiting while an employee went – on foot – to the market to purchase the necessary ingredients? Why wouldn’t they just tell him it’s not available, or at least let him know it’ll be a long wait? Because it wouldn’t even occur to them. In India, that’s just the way things are: there’s no logic and they don’t make any sense.
It seems to me that many things in this world are outside of the confines of logic. So many things don’t make any sense, seem very strange, are downright illogical. The way banks have responded to homeowners’ financial distress in the U.S. – by raising interest rates and foreclosing on drastically devalued homes – helped nobody and even hurt the banks. It doesn’t make sense. And what about a fight you’ve had with your parents, friends, siblings, or spouse? We often get emotional and logic goes out the window… and sometimes that’s the very best. Not everything in this world is logical and not everything needs to be. So why should we expect G-d, in all His wisdom, to give us a Torah that does not match our own real-world experiences?
To take this a step further, I will admit gladly that many people will disagree with the assessment that India has no logic. Instead, it is a different type of logic: Indian logic. To the Indian person, the most sensible thing to do when someone orders a dish for which you do not have the main ingredient is to go to the market to buy it. That your customer might wait a long time is unimportant – in India, few people are in such a big hurry. And, after all, the employees in the shop don’t have anything better to do when there are no other customers around, so why not? In some way, it makes sense, just not to our culture… so it’s hard to understand.
If it is so difficult even to understand the logic of another culture, then how could we possibly expect to understand G-d’s logic? He’s way out of our league, much more so than Indians are. That a commandment in the Torah does not make sense does not mean there is something wrong with it, or with our following it. If we don’t understand something in the Torah, the flaw is within us… and if we aren’t able to figure it out, the best we can do is just to have faith. Until moshiach comes and all is revealed to us, we will simply have to trust in something bigger and infinitely more intelligent than ourselves.