From The Chassidic Masters: The Power Of ‘What’

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By Rabbi Lazer Gurkow

Farmers in the Land of Israel are instructed by the Torah to work their land for six years and to let it lie fallow in the seventh. But when all the fields in a country are permitted to lie fallow for an entire year, does the nation not face a very real risk of famine?

The Torah addresses this concern (Bamidbar 25:20–21): “And if you say: ‘What will I eat in the seventh year?’ . . . I will command my blessing upon the sixth year and it will yield produce for a three-year period.” (The three-year period encompasses the sixth, seventh, and eighth years, as the nation must be sustained until the eighth year’s crop is harvested; see Rashi.)

When the Torah offers an answer, it usually leaves us to deduce the question for ourselves. In this case the Torah chooses to articulate the question. Is there anything unique about this particular question?

Societal Or Divine Morality

Society at large lives by a moral code. Governments legislate laws against immoral acts such as murder and theft, and they encourage ethical behavior such as charity and modesty. If you ask why murder is forbidden, the curt response would probably be, “Because taking the life of another is just plain wrong.”

If you persist and ask, “But why is it wrong?” the answer may very well be “Because it is!” If you further ask what makes it so, you can expect to hear something like “If you don’t sense it intuitively, then there is no point in trying to explain it to you.”

This would indeed be the correct answer. Murder is wrong because society intuitively senses the immoral nature of this act. Al Gore, former vice-president of the United States, commented that “democratic laws derive their moral authority from the national consent of the people.”

Yet somehow a Jew knows that moral authority is more profound than the mere consent of a nation. If you ask the Torah why murder is wrong, the answer is “It’s one of the Ten Commandments!” If you persist and ask why it is one of the Ten Commandments, the answer is “Do you expect to research and understand the Divine?”

Of course, the Jew also intuitively senses that murder is wrong. But to a Jew there is more to it than mere intuition. If G‑d ordained this prohibition as a Divine commandment, then it must be immoral for reasons beyond human intuition.

Beyond The Human Mind

Why does a Jew believe that Divine commandments are beyond human intuition?

The mitzvos are generally divided into two categories: (a) ethical commandments that are easily understood, such as the prohibition of theft; and (b) inexplicable decrees that defy human comprehension, such as the mitzvah of the red heifer.

The ethical commandments and the inexplicable decrees enjoy a symbiotic relationship, each affecting the way we view the other. The ethical commandments demonstrate that it is possible to gain a semblance of understanding of G‑d’s commandments. The decrees demonstrate that in the final analysis, G‑d’s wisdom exceeds ours. (See Mishneh Torah, Laws of B’ris Milah, ch. 8; Laws of Temurah, ch. 4.)

If we were given only the decrees, then our lack of understanding would have alienated us from the mitzvos. We would be unable to internalize the commandments and thus be prevented from developing an affinity and enthusiasm for them.

On the other hand, if we were given only the ethical commandments, we would have assumed that all Divinity is within the grasp of human comprehension. Naturally this would have caused us to dismiss all theistic notions that are beyond our understanding.

The inexplicable decrees teach the Jew to view even the easily understood mitzvos through the prism of Divine wisdom, recognizing that even ethical commandments such as the prohibition of murder are beyond our cognitive or intuitive grasp.1

Two Questions, One Word

This is the meaning of the question asked by the wise son (as told in the Pesach Haggadah): “What (“mah”) are the . . . decrees and laws that G‑d our L‑rd has commanded you?” (Devarim 6:20). The wise son understands that even the easily understood “laws” have dimensions that defy human comprehension, and so he asks to understand the true meaning of all the mitzvah categories—not only the decrees, but the laws too.

We now return to the question posed in our original verse, “And if you shall say: What (“mah”) shall we eat in the seventh year?” The only other questions that the Torah introduces in this manner are those of the four sons of the Haggadah. It is therefore possible to assume that this question is also asked by one of the four sons. Which of the four sons asks this question?

This question is cited in the Torah only after all the laws of the Sabbatical are first outlined. We thus deduce that this question is asked by the wise son, who has studied the entire subject and who is left with but one question.

The wise son’s questions are quoted twice in the Torah: “What is the meaning?” and “What shall we eat?” Though the questions seem unrelated, there is one word that connects them. The Hebrew word mah, “what.”

The Meaning Of ‘What’

The Jewish people are accustomed to this word. We are forever asking: What is the reason? What is the meaning? Like the wise son, we ask this question of all commandments and all occurrences, even those we supposedly understand. We realize that in the final analysis, our comprehension doesn’t capture the Divine thought process.

What is not only a question; it is also an answer. Because in the end, the question must be allowed to stand unanswered. We ask G‑d for his true reason or meaning, but we don’t claim entitlement to his answer. We plumb the Heavenly secrets to the extent that the human mind permits, but the rest is humbly left to G‑d.

The word what thus demonstrates profound humility. We ask it not in quarrel, but in acceptance. We ask it not in arrogance, but in submission. We ask it not in confusion, but in serene faith.

The words “What shall we eat in the seventh year” is not a question as much as it is a statement. We don’t know what the sabbatical year will bring, but we are also not concerned about a famine. We humbly and confidently place our trust in G‑d.

We can now understand why the Torah uses the words “if you say . . .” rather than “if you ask . . .” This is not a question as much as it is a statement of fact. We don’t know what we will eat, but we trust that we will eat. (It is interesting to note that the Haggadah also uses the same expression, “The wise son, what does he say?” rather than “What does he ask?”)

The Torah assures us that G‑d will not remain indebted to us if we approach this mitzvah with the humility prescribed by the word mah, what. “He will command his blessing upon the sixth year and it will yield enough produce for all three years.” v

Based on Likkutei Sichos, vol. 27, p. 185. See also Sefer Be’er Mayim Chayim from Rabbi Chaim Tchernowiz. Reprinted with permission from Find articles for the entire family at

Rabbi Lazer Gurkow is the spiritual leader of congregation Beth Tefilah in London, Ontario. For more about Rabbi Gurkow and his wrtings, visit


1. This explains why the Psalmist says, “He spoke … His decrees and laws to Israel; He has done so for no other nation and of His commandments He has not informed them” (Tehillim 147:19–20). According to our understanding, the word “laws” (“mishpatim”) refers to ethical commandments. One wonders why the Psalmist prides himself on being a member of the only nation to receive G‑d’s ethical commandments. Haven’t most other nations accepted these ethical precepts upon themselves even without receiving these commandments? It is not the commandments themselves that the Psalmist is proud of, but our approach to their reasons. The nations of the world accept these ethical standards because of reasons they intuitively grasp, but they ascribe no exalted wisdom to them. A Jew relates to the ethical standard as a sacred decree that contains inner secrets concealed in the realm of the Divine.

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