Virtually unique to human beings, serving no physiological purpose, and subject to fatal inflammation, the human appendix provided Charles Darwin with what he believed to be compelling evidence to support his theory of evolution. An organ contributing no benefits and potential harm could surely be nothing more than a remnant from distant ancestors in whom it served a function no longer relevant to man's evolved form.
Now medical researchers believe otherwise. Rather than time passing the appendix by, knowledge and understanding have caught up with yet another aspect of Creation and passed Darwin by.
Contemporary biologists have identified the appendix as a storehouse for good bacteria and white blood cells that replenish the body's immune system more quickly whenever it becomes depleted by fighting disease. Consequently, relatively recent developments in hygiene and medicine have left the appendix with too little to do, so that the underutilized production potential of the organ creates the conditions of stress that lead to appendicitis. It is not our bodies that have evolved; it is our environment.
Needless to say, before the purpose of the appendix was properly understood, Darwin's hypothesis seemed eminently reasonable. But jumping to the conclusion that anything we cannot explain must have no purpose or rationale demonstrates one of the most common forms of human arrogance. How often have science and medicine had to rethink their positions after new research has turned long-held truths upside down and inside out?
Even the greatest among us are prone to this kind of error. King David questioned the purpose of spiders and of insanity. (Personally, this author has a problem with mosquitoes.) The Almighty did not explain Himself to David. Rather, G0d made David dependent upon the very things whose purpose he had questioned.
When David was fleeing for his life from King Saul, he took refuge in one of the caves in the Judean desert. As Saul's soldiers searched the caves one by one, a spider's web strung across the entrance of the cave in which David hid convinced them that the cave must be empty. On another occasion, David was forced to flee into the territory of one of his most bitter enemies, Achish the Philistine; by feigning insanity, David escaped Achish's wrath.
The more we learn about our world, the more it testifies to the hand of the Creator who set all creatures and things precisely where He wanted them. The more we persist in asserting that the universe was no more than a cosmic accident, the more the universe laughs at our hubris.
In this week's Torah portion, we find three examples of kilayim - forbidden mixtures: Torah law prohibits planting other varieties of fruit trees in our vineyards, plowing with an ox and a donkey hitched together, and wearing wool and linen woven together into a single garment. These are examples of chukim, commandments that seem contrary to human logic.
Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains that, in addition to the more familiar categories of mitzvos - commandments between man and man, and commandments between man and G-d - there is yet another category: commandments between man and nature. These include many of the agricultural laws, the dietary restrictions, and all those that we consider chukim.
What is nature? It is the veil of familiarity and predictability behind which the Almighty conceals Himself and His miraculous running of the universe in order to preserve our free will. The cycle of seasons, the movement of the stars, the neck of the giraffe, and the flight of the hummingbird, no matter how extraordinary we ought to find them, fail to impress us because they have become expected and routine. The more we investigate nature, however, the more we discover how little we understand it. The more we uncover nature's secrets, the more we become aware of our incapacity to explain the mechanisms by which the world we live in operates with unfailing constancy.
It follows logically that if we cannot fully fathom nature's laws, we cannot expect to understand the commandments that define our interaction with nature's world. By their very definition, therefore, the chukim are not intended to be fully understood.
This does not mean that such commandments are without reason or utterly beyond our ken. In brief, the prohibitions against certain mixtures serve to remind mankind that we have a responsibility to respect the natural boundaries of G0d's world, even when they may not suit our purpose or conform to our intuition. The unnatural pairing of species compromises our awe and reverence for the order of Creation. The imposition of our will upon the animals that serve us without regard for their welfare reinforces the illusion that we are the true masters of our universe.
The symbolism behind the prohibition against mixing wool and linen in our clothing is somewhat deeper. Wool derives from the animal kingdom, symbolizing the animate functions of movement and perception. Linen derives from the plant kingdom, symbolizing nourishment and reproduction. In animals, the former serves that latter. In human beings, the latter should only serve the former as we aspire toward the fulfillment of a spiritual purpose far loftier than mere survival or self-indulgence. The clothing that we wear reminds us of the difference between ourselves and the animals that go naked without shame. Therefore, when we mix together wool and linen, we blur the critical distinction of which our garments are meant to be a constant reminder.
Even such explanations as these do not completely illuminate the reasons behind the chukim. Rather, their contrived inscrutability echoes the impenetrable mysteries of our universe, mysteries that may be solved bit by bit, over the course of a lifetime, just as we slowly and gradually discover the mysteries that reside within ourselves, within those we love, and within the Creator of all.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis, MO, where he also writes and lectures. Visit him at http://torahideals.wordpress.com .
© 2009, Rabbi Yonason Goldson