Which Hand Will You Pick? (Mishpatim)

All of us follow rules. One person speaks at a time. Raise your hand before you speak. Don’t hit other people. And, most of us, from time to time … don't follow rules. We speed – knowingly, see a police car, slow down, only to speed back up when the car turns away? These are examples of breaking rules.

How we decide what rules to follow and which ones to ignore is contained in the field of ethics. We don’t murder people because we think it’s wrong – it’s against our ethical code (at least we hope!) But speeding, perhaps cutting a corner or two on our tax returns, the occasional photocopy of copy-written material … quite often, these aren’t quite as clear cut.

In Judaism, our system of *mitzvot are similar. We decide which mitzvot to do based on any number of factors: meaningfulness, ease, and the ability to understand a reason for performing them, just as we follow rules and laws when we sense an underlying logic for them. One meaningful and powerful reason is often the fear of getting caught. Hence, we slow down when we see a police car. There's lots of other reasons - ethical, spiritual, educational ... The point is, if someone asks, Why do you follow such-and-such rule, my guess it that you have an answer. I'm sure the same is true if you are asked you why you go to Shabbat services, or why you study Torah, or why you will dress up ridiculously on Purim (cough cough).

This week’s portion, mishpatim, is all about rules. In our Jewish system of halachah, Jewish law, there are 613 rules and regulations to follow. Sometimes, they don't make sense. For example, there is the law of shatnez, the prohibition of wearing both wool and cotton on your body at the same time. With regard to mitzvot like these, I am often asked, Rabbi, what's the reason for 'X'? where X is one of our mitzvot. Often, there is not a set reason given in the Torah. The reason is simply because it is listed. These are what I like to call the 'Because I Said So' commandments.


I was flipping channels the other day and came across a program that talked about how our minds work (or don’t, for that matter!) The narrator talked about the concept of ambiguity aversion. We typically don't do things that are ambiguous; we are more comfortable with a known and fixed outcome. A prime example of this is can be seen in football. It has been mathematically proven that football coaches should go for it on fourth down much more often than they do. There is ambiguity in the unknown possibilities, and because of the nervousness regarding the unknown, they punt.

Scientists discuss the Ellsberg Paradox. Imagine I have a group of marbles in each of my hands. In my left hand I have 4 red marbles and 5 white marbles. In my right hand, I have an unknown combination of marbles, but there is SOME combination of both colors. You choose a hand, and then from that hand, choose a marble while blindfolded. If you pick a red marble, you get $100. Which hand would you choose to pick from, my left or right? In deciding, you weigh the odds. The odds of winning in one hand are known – there are 4 red marbles, and nine total marbles, so your chances are just under 50% (assuming you have all your marbles.) But in the other hand, you have NO idea what the odds are – it is ambiguous. And because you know the odds for one of the hands, you choose it, even though you have no idea if it’s the better choice.

Now, what if I say that I’ll give you $100 to pick a white marble. Again, you know the odds in the left hand. And in fact, the odds are more favorable to pick a white marble than a red, as there are 5 white marbles and only four red. So again, you would probably pick the left hand.

Here's where it gets interesting. The reason it is called a paradox, is that in both cases, most of you picked the left hand. Herein lies the paradox; the left hand can’t be the better choice for picking both the red and white marbles.

We pick the hand that makes sense to us, because we hesitate to choose what is unknown.


Speaking for myself, it’s often difficult to commit to laws that are irrational. These are the laws that are the “Because I Said So” laws. They don’t seem to add to my spiritual life, or make me more caring, or more appreciative. Some just don’t make sense.

Let's think about the mitzvot that we do perform. Fasting on Yom Kippur, celebrating Shabbat, conducting a Passover Seder ... These do make sense to us. They help us to grow, to be kinder, more appreciative, they are enjoyable. And if they're not enjoyable (Yom Kippur, I'm looking at you), they are certainly meaningful.

If we consider the Jewish laws that we do not follow, such as the prohibition to drive on Shabbat, or the law of shatnez, or any number of other mitzvot, I'm arguing that we don't do them because we have not discovered a reason that makes sense to do them. 'Because I Said So' is not good enough. With regard to these, we could say that there is ambiguity. We're not sure why we should follow them. We're not sure if God commands them or if God will reward or punish us accordingly. We may not be positive that they make us better human beings or better Jews. And so, because of this ambiguity, this seeming lack of a meaningful reason, we choose just like we did in the marbles experiment. We choose what is known, perhaps sacrificing something greater in the process.


Our Torah portion this week, with its rules and laws, challenges us to experience the ambiguity and to follow our laws, even as we don’t understand them.

I do not suggest that we throw the tenets of Reform Judaism out, just so we can tackle our ambiguity aversion. Our Reform movement is founded on rationalism and critical thought. But sometimes, we are too rationalistic, and too focused on whether or not a particular mishpat, or rule is meaningful.

Let us stretch ourselves to occasionally perform mitzvot that we otherwise wouldn't. When the Israelites accepted the Torah, they said, Na'aseh V'Nishmah, we will do and we will understand. Our rabbis suggest the paramount importance of this word order. We will follow the laws, we will do them, we will life our life guided by them. And only after will we understand. Oftentimes in our instant-gratification culture, we feel the need to understand first. Let us embrace the ambiguity of some of our mitzvot.

You. Are. Talented. (T'rumah)

Take a Step Back: Moses, God and Tzimtzum (Yitro)