This week we see a very significant transition in the focus of the literature of the Torah. Up until this week the Torah has consisted purely of narrative, describing the creation, the first few generations, the lives of the forefathers, and the enslavement and freedom of the Jewish people from Egypt. This week the Torah turns into a book of commandments as well, the basis of the system
that would later be known as Halachah. In his very first comment on the Torah, Rashi asks why the Torah included all of the narrative and did not just start with the precept of “sanctifying the new moon,” the first of many in this week’s Parsha.[i]
While Rashi asks why the Torah included narrative to supplement the law system, but there is an even more basic question that can be asked: Why do the Jewish people have such an intricate law system in the first place? What is the goal of Torah’s instruction, and why does our religion distinguish itself with such intricate commands that govern every facet of our daily lives?
This discussion is essential for any Jew who wishes to connect to his religion in an honest and thoughtful way. Although, I cannot give a perfect answer to the question, I would like to quote a commentator who sheds light on the issue and offers a very significant piece of advice.
An unknown author in the 13th century wrote the Sefer HaChinuch to shed light on all of the 613 Divine commandments listed in the Torah. The author wrote the book to help his son start to learn to follow the way of God in a less intimidating manner, and thus in a very clear and easy-to-read fashion, the book outlines the intricacies of the commandments and the reasons they were commanded.
One of the detailed laws of the Paschal Lamb is that we must not break any of the lamb’s bones during the process. The Sefer HaChinuch uses this law as a platform to discuss his general thesis about Jewish law and its particularity:[ii]
Do not think, my son, to find a flaw in this argument and ask: why did God have to command us to do all this in order to commemorate this miracle. Surely one commemorative act would have been sufficient to ensure that the event would be recalled by us and not be forgotten? Know, that man is influenced by his actions. The things he does, good or bad, condition his heart and thoughts. Even if he is thoroughly wicked and his mind is dominated by evil thoughts the whole day long, if he bestir himself and endeavor to be constantly occupied with the Torah and its precepts, though not with godly intent, he will inevitably veer towards the good. From the wrong motive he will be led to the right one[iii] and by the force of his actions he will kill the evil inclination since it is actions that shape character.
Conversely, even if a person is completely upright in character and positively conditioned to the Torah and its precepts, if he is constantly engaged in crooked pursuits they will ultimately lead him astray and turn him into a criminal. For it is abundantly clear that every man is influenced by his actions as we have already noted…. Consider well therefore your occupations and pursuits; for you will be influenced by them and not vice-versa. Now that you know this do not be puzzled by the large number of precepts connected with the commemoration of the miracles of Egypt. It is a fundamental principle of our Torah that the more we become preoccupied with them, the more are we influenced in the way we have described.
Religious growth should not necessarily start with the mind and then lead to the actions. Rather we must listen to our forefathers who first stated “we will do” and only after followed with “we will listen.” If we want to live according to our ideals, we must make sure that our actions are aligned with them, for our conviction may help us focus, but it is our actions that will shape our character.
Jonathan Levine grew up in San Diego, California, and was part of the West Coast NCSY Regional Board in high school. He was very active in NCSY and in JSU throughout his time on the West Coast. He is currently studying in Yeshivat Hakotel in Jerusalem.
[i] Rashi Bereishit 1:1; see there for his answer ( see Netivot Shalom Bereishit
[ii] Sefer HaChinuch 16 (translation by Aryeh Newman with some changes)
[iii] “Mitoch She’Lo Lishma Ba Lishma”