Since the reasons for the mitzvos are not immediately apparent, they are called chukim (decrees). Not only do the chukim attest to our loyalty to HaShem but, even more-so they bear witness to the great love B’nai Yisroel (the Jewish People) have for HaShem (G-d), for we follow HaShem’s commands with joy, whether we understand them or not.
Mindful of the value of performing a mitzva without the need for rational explanations, we can derive further benefit by gaining insights into the inner meanings of mitzvos. It is for this reason that the Gemora (Talmud), Medrash, and other traditional sources offer many reasons for chukim. These reasons are known as ”ta’amim”, which means flavors, for we are not capable of appreciating any mitzva fully, but are merely getting a “taste” of the mitzva. This can be compared to food which we eat. Even though the most important reason that we consume food is for nutrition, the good taste of the food enhances our eating. So too, the ”ta’amim” of the mitzvos help us gain even more from our Torah observance.
The Kuzari says that one of the reasons for kashrus is to prevent us from blending into the surrounding culture. In addition to the Torah laws of kashrus, many of the major “gzeiros” (decrees), such as “bishul Yisroel” (cooking) and “stam yeinam” (kashrus of wine), which were made by the rabbis serve as reminders not to adopt the mores and attitudes of the surrounding cultures, losing our identities, and eventually disappearing.
While we remain cognizant of the need to maintain our religious identity and pursue the role which HaShem designated for us, we must not lose sight of our obligation to pursue “darchei shalom” (the path of peace), as the Rambam states (Hilchos Melachim chapter 10), “We are enjoined to visit their (non-Jewish) sick and to bury their dead along with those of the Jewish People, because of “darchei shalom”.
What is the meaning of “darchei shalom”? Is it merely a requirement that we be pragmatic and maintain a good civil relationship with others, or is “darchei shalom” a manner of behavior expected of us?
It is evident from the Rambam that “darchei shalom” is actually a mode of behavior which is expected of the Jewish people, for the Rambam quotes, “HaShem is good to all, and His mercy is upon all of His creatures,” (Tehillim 145) and “Its ways are pleasant and all of its paths are peaceful.” (Mishlei 3) Since the Rambam backs up the requirement of “darchei shalom” with these verses it is evident that living peacefully with our neighbors is neither a mere act of self-preservation nor is it for expedience sake, but rather it is the expected mode of behavior for a Torah observant Jew. Cognizant of the historical period in which the Rambam lived; the terror and exile which the Rambam and his family experienced at the hands of the tyrannical fanatics of his times, it is all the more remarkable that he was able to reciprocate with a Torah posture – an attitude or peace and good will.
The Rambam (Yesodai HaTorah 5) codifies the interpersonal behavior the Torah expects of us: “…If the wise man is particular, speaks pleasantly with others, is sociable, gracious, etc., about him it states, “You are My servant, Yisroel through whom I am adorned.”
Rabbi Naftoli Eisemann