September 5th-6th, 2003
9 Elul, 5763
When you examine this week’s Torah portion, you will no doubt be
astonished at the sheer number of commandments (mitzvos) it contains. The
Sefer HaChinuch (Book of Mitzvah Education), calculates 27 positive
commandments, and 47 [yes, you read that right!] negative commandments
(prohibitions) in the space of some 110 verses. However you slice it (or
dice it), that’s one heaping helping of biblical law!
The mitzvos in this parsha include readily understandable decrees--such as
the obligation to return lost objects to their owners, to use honest
weights and measures in commercial dealings, and to build a protective
fence around an accessible rooftop. (By rabbinical extension, the latter
commandment includes removing or repairing all potential hazards to
personal safety on one’s property. So take a careful look around your
grounds this Sunday!)
However, you will also find laws here that defy immediate rational
explanation (such mitzvos are called, "chukim," in Torah terminology),
like the prohibition of wearing a garment containing a combination of wool
and linen (sha’atnez). Some of them deal with our relationship to our
fellow man (not charging interest when loaning money to a fellow Jew),
while others pertain more specifically to our relationship to G-d (not
delaying the fulfillment of personal vows). We have the injunction to
leave a portion of our harvest to the poor, and a directive to respect the
dignity and privacy of a debtor even when we--as creditors--are seizing
collateral to which we are legally entitled.
Of course, the exact details and parameters of all these commandments are
to be found only in our Oral Law (i.e., the Mishnah and the Talmud), and
the subsequent codes. Don’t be surprised if there is much to study in
order to learn just how--in practice--to establish a society founded on
the noble ideals of justice and righteousness. As I once wrote before:
while it may be an excellent song in the Beatles catalogue, All You Need
is Love does not get things exactly right. We need a little more guidance
than that…though love of one’s neighbor is certainly an intrinsic part of
the program. This is why (in a famous Talmudic story), the great Sage,
Hillel, after telling a potential convert that the essence of the Torah is
to refrain from doing to another what is hateful to oneself, concluded his
instructions by urging him: "The rest is commentary—Now, go and learn!"
Back to this week’s smorgasbord of mitzvos. The question almost inevitably
jumps to mind: Why do we need so many commandments in our Torah?!
One answer to this question was suggested above. To create a society of
righteousness, a holy nation (at the collective level), we needed--and
still need--the various laws and precepts of the Torah.
But I want to consider the question at the level of the individual for a
moment. When you or I have a look at this long laundry list of
responsibilities given to each of us as Jews, we might (in our weaker
moments, anyway) wonder if it is some kind of punishment from the Almighty
(G-d forbid)! Why do there have to be so many?
We need to see things from the true perspective. The great number of
mitzvos bespeaks G-d’s love for us!
Each and every mitzvah represents a unique opportunity to connect to the
Holy One, Blessed be He, a chance to make ourselves more holy. This is
exactly what we say in the blessing that precedes many of the
commandments: "Blessed are You, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, Who
has sanctified us [i.e., given us the chance to become more holy], and
commanded us to…."
The mitzvot themselves are the greatest blessing that G-d has given us, a
complete and perfect program to refine ourselves in ALL areas of our life,
from how we eat to how we do business. The words we speak, the actions we
perform, even the private thoughts we have: all are uplifted and purified
by the sanctifying power of the Torah’s commandments. Our souls are
illuminated--here and now in this physical world, and eternally after we
leave this dimension of existence--through the mitzvos we perform. And if
you still ask, "But why so many?" then consider that a human being is a
complex and multi-faceted creature, possessing enormous potential for both
good and bad. G-d has given us these many mitzvos because we need them in
order to help us actualize all that human potential in all its dimensions,
as well as to avoid all the many pitfalls that could divert (or destroy)
As Moshe told the Jewish people, the mitzvos are given to us by the One
Who is All Good…for our own good.
"Now, O Israel, what does Hashem, your G-d ask of you? Only to have awe of
Hashem, your G-d, to go in all of His ways and to love Him, to serve
Hashem, your G-d, with all your heart and with all your soul, to observe
the commandments of Hashem and His decrees…for your benefit."
(Deuteronomy: 10, 12-13)
As Nachmanidies (Ramban) writes in his comments on this week’s portion:
"The benefit from the commandments is not derived by the Holy One Himself,
exalted be He. Rather, the advantage is to man himself, to withhold from
physical harm or some evil belief, or unseemly trait of character, or to
the miracles and wonders of the Creator, blessed is He, in order to know
Eternal. It is this [which the Rabbis intended in saying in the Midrash]
the commandments were given ‘for the purpose of refining men,’ that they
may become like ‘refined silver’…" (Commentary on the Torah,
Chavel edition, Volume 5, p. 268)
And as Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto puts it in his classic, The Way of
G-d--in somewhat more mystical terms:
"The purpose of each commandment is either to allow man to earn and
incorporate in himself a particular level of true excellence, or to remove
area of deficiency and darkness. This is accomplished through doing what
commandments require and avoiding what they forbid…
The Highest Wisdom decreed that every act of observing G-d’s commandments
should bring a person closer to G-d to a particular determined degree. The
individual then attains a degree of G-d’s Light corresponding to this
closeness, and this in turn causes a degree of perfection resulting from
enlightenment to become an integral part of him." (Feldheim edition;
p. 67 and p. 73)
There is a lot to sanctify, illuminate and perfect in this world and in
our own personalities, and so Hashem has graciously provided the complete
(and detailed) guidebook for the task: the Torah.
One of the great sages of the 20th century used to remind his students
that each and every mitzvah is a diamond, of untold (indeed, infinite and
eternal) preciousness. Busy yourselves in grabbing as many as possible
while you have the time, he implored them. Let me ask you. Is a heavy
sackload of diamonds a burden? A punishment?!!
As we all approach Rosh Hashanah, the time of judgment and the time of
renewed commitment, wouldn’t it be a good idea to get grabbing?! Don’t
worry if you’re not able to do ALL of the mitzvos right now (or if you
failed to do them in the past). Just begin where you are by picking up the
precious diamond that’s nearest at hand. (And now we can appreciate what a
great blessing it is that there are so many around to seize.) There is no
better time than NOW to begin to study, investigate and lovingly perform
the mitzvos. You may never be able to do it ALL (which of us can?), but do
whatever is in your power to do! That’s what is expected of us. We will
not only elevate ourselves, but we will also elevate all of G-d’s Creation
in the process as well.
May we undertake to spiritually enrich ourselves with more passion in the
coming days of this holy month of Elul, and truly appreciate all the
mitzvos--those countless precious diamonds beckoning at our feet--that
Hashem has given us. GOOD SHABBOS.
My e-mail address is email@example.com
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