David Walk

It’s a wonderment!!

This week’s Torah reading is Judaism’s course in political science. We have separate judicial and executive branches, and constitutional monarchy. This year I’m concerned with one aspect of the judicial system. When the local courts sitting by the gates of every city couldn’t handle a case it got taken the high judicial court in the country’s religious center, eventually Yerushalayim. The verse states that this happens when the case is YIPALE (Devarim 17:8). A fascinating term, which requires analysis. 

The root of this word PEH, LAMED, ALEPH, gives us the word NIFLA’A, which means wonderful or miraculous. But what does it mean in our context? Onkelos suggests ‘covered’. Various English attempts include baffling, separated from you, too difficult, or beyond you. How one understands this term affects their approach to the entire process of judicial oversight.  

The Ran (Rabbeinu Nissim of Gerona, 1320-1376) understands this term in conjunction with a later phrase, ‘do not deviate from the decision they tell you neither right nor left’ (verse 11). He then explains that even if their decision seems to you to be totally wrong, nevertheless you must abide by it. He goes on to emphasize that this is true even when they are, in fact, wrong. Ultimately, ‘this is the basis of our conviction concerning the mitzvot of the Torah that we are fulfilling the will of the Blessed One so long as we rely upon the ruling of the great Sages of the generation.’ 

The Ketzot Hachoshen (Rav Aryeh Leib Heller, 1745-1812) adds that by giving the Torah to human beings, who are fundamentally incapable of fully understanding Divine wisdom, God redefined the nature of ultimate truth and elected to prefer the truth that emerges from the best efforts of human logic, however imperfect and inaccurate it may be, to the ultimate truth found only in Heaven. This is, perhaps, the strongest expression of the principle LO B’SHAMAYIM HI, Torah is not in heaven, it is on earth.  

The Ketzot adds a rather remarkable conclusion: the language of our daily birkot ha-Torah, “an everlasting life He implanted in our midst,” as an answer to the Ran’s comparison of following an incorrect ruling to ingesting poison. When one ingests poison, it remains poison. But God implanted everlasting life in our midst by giving us the Torah; He implanted within us the ability to create everlasting life via novel Torah interpretations. When the Sages, following proper halakhic process, declare something permitted, then even if previously it was spiritually poisonous, it becomes benign or even beneficial. 

The Chassidic masters used this verse to reinforce the power of the Rebbe or Zadik. Rebbe Nachman suggests:

The essence and foundation on which everything depends is one’s binding oneself to the tzaddik of the generation: accepting his word in whatever he says, “This is how it is,” in matters small and great; not deviating, God forbid, from his word “to the right or the left” (Deuteronomy 17:11), as our Sages teach: even if he tells you that right is left… (Sifre, op. cit.); casting off from oneself all pseudo-wisdoms; and dismissing one’s knowledge as if one had no intelligence other than what one receives from the tzaddik and Rebbe of the generation, because as long as one retains some of one’s own intellect, one lacks completion and is not bound to the tzaddik (Likutei Moharan 123:1:1). 

But this year I’m most interested in the ideas of the Me’or V’Shemesh, He gives a number of answers to the unusual use of the term PELE for a difficulty. First he suggests that PELE refers to the much needed information coming from a wondrous place, namely Heaven, not Yerushalayim. 

Then he opines that the PELE or ‘wonder’ is that there are doubts at all. Shouldn’t Torah be perfectly clear to us all? Afterall it was bequeathed to us from Moshe, God’s faithful servant and our eternal Rebbe. Shouldn’t the MESORAH or chain of tradition been accurate and authoritative? Well, no, because the first humans Adam and Chava ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good AND Bad, and that caused humanity’s reasoning powers to include negative ideas along with the positive. Hence, we get confused and need special guidance.   

The Rebbe’s last idea on the conundrum of why a legal difficulty is called a PELE, I find this the most fascinating. In the name of the Kabbalistic masterpiece, Sefer HaYetzira, the Rebbe explains that every human soul has seven gates or aspects. These many layers and levels in our soul and psyche can hide the MISHPAT from us, and make it impossible for us to see and accept the DIN. Therefore, we need the Cohen as well as the judge to help the litigant see the justice of the decision and help the litigant deal spiritually with the ramifications of the DIN. 

For the ultimate success of any judicial system there must be the acceptance and allegiance of the people in the process. The wonder of our legal system must be that we see both the fairness of it and societal good of the process. These desired results require procedures which satisfy the many levels within ourselves.  That’s why we need great judicial scholars, caring Cohanim and a recognized spiritual center to assure that the litigants and society have trust in the system. 

We’ve got a long way to go to achieve these ends in our modern Jewish society. But it’s a work in progress, and someday, hopefully soon, we’ll experience the full wonder of process.

About the Author
Born in Malden, MA, 1950. Graduate of YU, taught for Rabbi Riskin in Riverdale, NY, and then for 18 years in Efrat with R. Riskin and R. Brovender at Yeshivat Hamivtar. Spent 16 years as Educational Director, Cong. Agudath Sholom, Stamford, CT. Now teach at OU Center and Yeshivat Orayta.
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