Rabbi Chaim Dovid Green
This week's parsha has been following the Jewish People around for over
three thousand years. It is probably one of the greatest causes of
controversy in history. It is the parsha discussing the giving of the Torah
on Mount Sinai. According to the Torah, G-d revealed Himself to the entire
Jewish nation on the mountain. Every person there heard G-d's voice, and
experienced the multi-faceted revelation which occurred there. This
experience made an indelible imprint on the soul of the people gathered
there, and only because of it do we achieve the miraculous continuity which
we have achieved throughout our incredible history.
Tradition teaches us that G-d taught Moshe the entire Torah, which comprises
the first five books of the Bible. In the Torah there are a total of 613
commandments - 248 do's, and 365 don'ts. Not all of these commandments, or
mitzvos apply to all Jews. Many can only be performed in Israel. Many apply
to Kohanim, the priestly families who descend from the tribe of Levi. Many
regard to the offering of sacrifices. Nevertheless, there are quite a few
which still do apply to us all.
Among the ranks of the mitzvah observant we find adherents to different
authorities - whom we call rabbis. This was really a concept which has its
source in the topic of this week's parsha as well. Initially, the Children
of Israel asked G-d (through Moshe) to cease speaking to them directly. The
experience was too much for them. At that time the Children of Israel
accepted upon themselves to always adhere to the words of their prophets,
whom G-d did continue to communicate with. After the cessation of prophecy
over a century after the destruction of the first Holy Temple in approx. 424
B.C.E, the people turned to their wise men who had a thorough knowledge and
dedication to the observance of Torah and Mitzvos. To this day such an
adherence and dedication still exists.
The question which bothers many people is "is this what G-d wanted from us,
that we should be a bunch of robots just following directions, without any
feeling or participation in the decision process? Where does individualism
fit into all of this?
The Midrash Tanchuma (Tazria) states "the mitzvos were not given but to
refine people through them." This means to say that through learning and
observing commandments we achieve refinement. In other words, G-d gave us
advice, and standards for our behavior in this world. By making those
standards our goals we have a vehicle through which we can live up to our
potential. G-d is challenging us to grow. Fulfilling one's potential is the
greatest manifestation of individualism which one can express.
Consequently, instead of being squelched and constrained by the "burden" of
all of these commandments and responsibilities, we have "opportunities"
through which we can flex our spiritual muscles and live up to and expand
our potential. One who accepts the veracity of the tradition, and accepts
that these events took place, and that G-d indeed gave us these mitzvos to
perform, views other choices of lifestyles as man-made versus G-d-ordained.
Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch (19th cent. Frankfurt) writes that the word
Torah (Tav, Vav, Reish, Hey) comes from the root word which means to
conceive (Hey, Reish, Hey), as in conceiving a child. Rav Hirsch explains
that this is the goal of the Torah; to plant G-d's thoughts in our minds and
hearts, that we should nurture and cultivate them, until they become part of
our make-up, manifest in our thoughts and deeds. The teachings of the Torah
circumscribe and temper unleashed spontaneity, but maintains it in a refined
form. One who embraces the teachings of the Torah in thought and deed,
becomes an instrument of G-d's will, and a messenger of G-d. At the same
time he engages his feelings and emotions, and his own uniqueness in
fulfilling the precepts of the Torah. This is the basis of Rav Hirsch's
battle with the ethical humanists of his day, who wished to cast off
proscribed behaviors, and cultivate the ethical personality from inside
Choosing to observe mitzvos is a choice to make a commitment. Yet it is
still a choice in the fullest sense which a person reiterates with each
mitzvah he performs. It is not robotic programming, but nurturing and
sensitizing one's heart and intellect to interact with life whether it be on
a personal, or communal level in a Torah way. And there are, and have been
in history many challenges which impede progress in all of these areas,
hence constantly bringing choice-making into the fore.
The Torah was given to the entire Jewish people, applicable to all
generations. It is G-d's way of challenging us to make the best of our own
unique raw materials. We have risen to the challenge, and that is why with
G-d's help, we are still here to talk about it.
Text Copyright © 1998 Rabbi Dovid Green and
Project Genesis, Inc.