We often think of the Torah as a storybook. It tells us the story of God creating the world, forming a covenant with the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and, through Moses, leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, through the wilderness for forty years until they reached the land of Israel. The Torah is the book that tells us our story.
That’s true. Yet, the Torah is a great deal more than storytelling. The Torah also is a book of mitzvot, commandments. In fact, Jewish tradition often puts more emphasis on the laws of the Torah than on those stories we learned as children. Torah, according to the rabbis, is primarily about the mitzvot.
This week's Torah portion is called Mishpatim, which means “laws.” It appears immediately after the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai and it contains more than fifty specific mitzvot ranging from the ritual, to the ethical, to the inexplicable.
For example, this week’s portion contains mitzvot for the ritual observances of Shabbat and the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Sukkot and Shavuot. It commands that we eat only unleavened bread for the seven days of Passover and that we stop working on Shabbat and take time to rest.
The portion also has some well known ethical mitzvot: the prohibitions against bribery, gossip, bestiality, giving false testimony, and mistreating widows and orphans. It contains the requirement to provide food for the needy. It includes the most often repeated mitzvah in the entire Torah: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). Good rules, all of those.
In the category of mitzvot that are “inexplicable” (or, at least, difficult to understand in the modern world), this week’s Torah portion commands that Hebrew slaves who refuse to be set free at the end of their term of service must have their ears pierced with an awl and remain slaves for life. It commands that a man who seduces a virgin must marry her. It also commands that children who insult their parents must be put to death. (Well, maybe that last one’s not so bad.)
There is no distinction made in the Torah between the different types of mitzvot. The ethical mitzvot, the criminal mitzvot, the ritual mitzvot, the sensible mitzvot and the inexplicable mitzvot, all are given together as one. God says that we are expected to observe them all.
This raises a problem for contemporary Jews. We are impressed by the wisdom of the ethical laws and feel their weight upon us. Even if we are sometimes tempted to gossip, we recognize the harm that gossip does and we recognize that this mitzvah makes sense for living a better life.
We also acknowledge that the ritual laws are important, but most of us think of them differently. We know how lighting Shabbat candles, for example, helps us preserve continuity with our ancestors and keeps alive the collective memory of our people. Yet, most of us probably do not feel that rituals are as critical as ethical laws. Lighting Shabbat candles every week just doesn’t feel like it carries the same weight as refraining from bribery and mistreating widows and orphans.
Mitzvot of the third category—those that make little sense to us—may not inspire any obligation in us. None of us will be looking this weekend for an awl to pierce the ears of our slaves. Those mitzvot that offend us, like the commandment to put a child to death for insulting his or her parents, should make us feel an obligation to reject them.
We want to sort the mitzvot into categories to know which are important, which are critical, which we consider, and which we reject. We want to pick and choose. Yet, the Torah does not admit a distinction. The mitzvot are the mitzvot. They are what God expects us to do.
How do we deal with that?
In the early decades of American Reform Judaism, the movement’s leaders attempted to answer that question by explicitly stating that the standards had changed. They wrote in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885:
We recognize in the Mosaic legislation a system of training the Jewish people for its mission during its national life in Palestine, and today we accept as binding only its moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives, but reject all such as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.
Since the times of the Pittsburgh Platform, the Reform Movement has backed away from such a bald rejection of some parts of the Torah. We have slowly tried to find a balance between the concerns of the modern age that rejects the irrational, and the concerns of Jewish faith that hears the Torah as divinely inspired, transcendent beyond the passing tastes and preferences of our times. If Torah is holy, we must be willing to hear it even when it seems difficult or out of step with our times.
There is nothing new about this. Parts of the Torah were also a challenge to the ancient rabbis. You don’t like the way the Torah allows masters to treat their slaves? Neither did the sages of the Talmud. However, rather than just saying that the Torah was wrong, the rabbis used the power of interpretation to find deeper meaning in the Torah.
According to the Talmud, there is a hidden message in the mitzvah to pierce the ear of the slave who refuses freedom. The Torah says that this slave believes “tov lo imach” (Deuteronomy 15:16). The simplest reading of the phrase is “it is good for him to be with you,” meaning that the slave says he is happy to be your servant. However, the Hebrew could also be read to mean, “It is as good for him as it is for you.” The Talmud jumps to this reading and states that a Hebrew slave must be treated as his master’s equal—as good for him as it is for you. The rabbis say a Hebrew slave must be fed the same food as his master and given a feather bed like his master’s bed. They conclude from this that, “When you buy a Hebrew slave, it is like buying yourself a master” (B. Kiddushin 22a).
What at first seemed like a law for turning temporary slaves into a permanent slaves is actually, according to the rabbis, a spiritual lesson about the price we pay when we force or coerce others to do our will. The price of enslaving others is that we become slaves ourselves.
This is not just gamesmanship, flipping around the words of the Torah to get it to say whatever we want it to say. It is, rather, an act of love. The rabbis loved the Torah so much that they struggled to find meaning in it, even in the places where it seems harsh or difficult.
We do the same thing with the people we love. When you love someone who has a difficult personality, you take extra pains to know that person more deeply, to understand the experiences that have shaped him or her so you can respond compassionately and with forgiveness, even when that person is being difficult. The Torah is like that, too. It was raised in an age when slavery was common, when men had tremendous power over women, and when most people had little control over their destiny. The Torah is shaped by those experiences. Because the rabbis loved the Torah, they probed it deeply to understand it and to read it compassionately as a text that brings deeper spirituality and meaning into life.
In our own day, we continue the process of interpreting the Torah. We don’t need to reject Torah to deal with its difficulties. In fact, we embrace the idea that Torah should be difficult. It should challenge us to find meaning in our lives. Life, we know, is not easy and we need to learn how to negotiate life’s challenges and hardships while maintaining our ability to find joy in it.
The purpose of the Torah is not to instruct us in what to do and what not to do. The purpose of the Torah is to force us to be mindful about what we are doing and to hold it up to a standard that does not originate out of our own heads. The Torah is about disciplining ourselves to recognize that our lives belong to something greater than ourselves, and to make us aware that the choices we make in life reflect that truth.
Rather than thinking of the Torah’s mitzvot as a kind of check list of things we have to do to please God (and things we have to refrain from doing), think of them instead as part of a conversation we are having with God. Like a good teacher, Torah does not want us to just memorize facts that will be on the test. Torah wants us to consider what we are doing, learn to assess our actions against our values, to find new meaning in our lives by brightening our spiritual dimension, and deepening our relationship with God by continuing the conversation.
We don’t need to reject parts of the Torah, as the Pittsburgh Platform sought to do. We need to redefine it.
The Torah is a the book of wisdom that God gave us as a wedding gift on the day we were married at Mount Sinai. It is a book that wants to be read joyfully. It wants to be read actively, so the reader will draw upon his or her own experience and wisdom to interpret it. It wants us to linger over each phrase to discover hidden treasures that help us to understand ourselves more deeply, even in the difficult parts. Torah gives us mitzvot, not to enslave us to a legal code, but to free us to discover who we really are.
In this way, we discover the real reason why there are no distinctions in the Torah between the ethical, the ritual, the sensible and the inscrutable. All the mitzvot are there for us to savor and consider, to awaken us and to prepare us every day for the journey of life. The Torah is the song we sing, and the mitzvot are the path we walk, as we travel toward our purpose.
Other Posts on This Topic:
Chukat: The Reason for the Red Cow
Bechukotai: Being Commanded, Choosing Joy