The Torah section of Chukat begins with a description of the law of the red heifer that is to be brought in the event of one’s coming in contact with a corpse. In Kohelet Rabbah 7:23, we are informed that the wise King Solomon attempted to understand the reason for this law but was unsuccessful, concluding that this is a chok, a Divine law whose purpose we cannot fathom.
Our Sages point out that the reasons for the laws of the Torah were kept secret in order to avoid erring in their performance, as the wisest of all men, King Solomon, himself did with regards to two laws, mistakenly thinking that they do not apply to him (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 21b).
King Solomon, in the end, himself admitted (Sh’mot Rabbah 6:1), “That which I thought I understood in the Torah was mere foolishness, for who can fathom or question the wisdom of the King.”
In his Outlooks and Insights pp. 187-189, R. Zev Leff notes that the aforementioned midrash appears to imply, on one hand, that Solomon’s mistake lay in his understanding of the Torah, and, on the other hand, it seems that his mistake lay in his misplaced confidence in his own powers rather than misunderstanding the Torah.
Moreover, R. Leff points out, our Sages tell us (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 33b) that one who says, “As Your mercies, G-d, devolve on the mother bird and its nest, so, too, have mercy on us,” must be silenced, since sending away the mother bird before taking the eggs is strictly a Divine decree, and not for the purposes of showing mercy to the mother bird, as such a prayer would imply. On the other hand, the Sages tell us (Devarim Rabbah 6:1), “So, too, G-d’s mercy extends to the birds, as it says, ‘When you discover a bird’s nest…send away the mother.’”
To resolve the contradiction, R. Leff suggests that we must distinguish between taste and reason. If asked why we eat, we may answer that is incumbent on us to do so to live. If asked why we eat bread and not sand, we might refer to the necessary nutrients to be found in bread but not in sand. However, if asked why humans require nutrients or why nutrients are found in bread and not sand, there is nothing more for us to say than that this is the way G-d created the world and is only understood by Him.
Although we eat in order to live, G-d implanted taste into different foods, but the food’s taste cannot be confused with the reason for eating. Even if one’s taste buds would be damaged and could not taste the food, he would still have to eat.
In a similar fashion, following G-d’s precepts provides our souls with their requisite nutrition. How and why a given precept nourishes our soul is no more understood than why certain items provide proper nutrition for our bodies. However, to make the precepts palatable for us, He infused them with taste – ideas and lessons – that we can grasp, but we should not confuse the lessons that we can derive from the precepts with their underlying reasons.
In light of the above, all the literature discussing explanations for precepts refers to the explanations as ta’ame mitzvot, meaning tastes of precepts. Therefore, to entreat G-d, Who has mercy on birds, to have similar mercy on us may be a reflection of one’s own determination that he understands the reason for the precept from G-d’s perspective, which is a mistake. However, to derive from the precept a lesson of mercy, as an enhancement to our execution of the precept is quite acceptable. Thereby is resolved the apparent contradiction between the different passages in the midrash.
The aforementioned distinction between reason and taste also clarifies the error of King Solomon. The explanations provided for certain precepts are only ta’ame mitzvot – tastes of the precepts – not their reasons. For King Solomon to infer an exemption from such precepts based on these explanations was completely unacceptable, not only as a result of his overconfidence in his self-control, but, also, as a result of a misunderstanding the Torah in confusing “tastes” and reasons.
While we may, as our own wisdom develops, derive lessons from G-d’s precepts, we must always keep in mind that the ultimate reasons of His precepts are impossible to fathom fully for His wisdom infinitely surpasses ours. This is the lesson we learn from the precept of the red heifer and King Solomon’s study of it and other precepts.