There are families whose hold on Judaism and Jewish tradition is so tentative that the word “holy” is thought to be a reference to Jewish food, something having to do with bagels and lox. Yet, that same family will stubbornly insist that their children only marry other Jews. Why?
G-d designated the Bnai Yisroel (Sons of Israel) as the Chosen People because they were chosen to serve humanity as examples and teachers of monotheistic morality and ethics. At the same time we are commanded to be different than the surrounding nations. We are commanded to eat differently, worship differently, live only in Eretz Yisroel (the Land of Israel), and only marry our own. How are we supposed to model for the other nations values that are supposed to be universal while steadfastly holding on and cherishing our differences? How are they supposed to learn to emulate our ways if we insist on being insular and escaping behind the protective walls of community, Halacha (Jewish law) and tradition?
When traveling abroad, especially in Europe, the sight of another Jew brings a smile to our lips and a feeling of greater security and comfort. Why?
How is it that a child can be away from his parent’s home for years and upon returning to the home of his childhood feel completely comfortable and secure? Following the hugs and kisses the returning adult-child will feel comfortable enough to go directly to the frig, open it up, look inside and say, “What’s there to eat?” Why is that?
Sitting down to a meal in a restaurant you chance upon a side dish that tastes exactly the way your mother used to make it. Assuming that you liked your mother’s cooking, the immediate association infuses you with fond memories and feelings of warmth, comfort, and security. Why?
For almost 40 years (if not longer) NCSY has brought back tens of thousands of young adults into the fold of their tradition with the formula, “Just one Mitzvah (commandment).” Over the course of a Shabbaton (weekend retreat) the otherwise unaffiliated and uninitiated are encouraged to take the small chance and commit themselves to doing “Just one Mitzvah.” There are thousands of fully engaged religious, traditional, Jews who will attest that the one Shabbos not turning on the TV, or not talking on the telephone, or making Kiddush, or lighting Shabbos candles and eating a piece of Challah changed their lives forever! Why? How does one small Mitzvah change a person’s life?
Following the extraordinary experience of Kriyas Yam Suf (Parting Of The Sea – Parshas B’shalach) and Matan Torah (Revelation – Parshas Yisro), G-d commanded Moshe to teach the Jews the basic laws of social engagement and responsibility (this week’s portion – Parshas Mishpatim). The placement of these social laws immediately following the giving of the Torah makes it obvious that G-d expected His Torah to elevate His Chosen People into paradigms of ethical and moral social behavior.
That this is G-d’s intention is reinforced through Hillel’s response to the convert who asked to be taught the entire Torah while standing on one foot. Hillel answered, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your friend. Now go and study the rest of the Torah!” Meaning, G-d’s primary concern is the manner in which you interact with your fellow human being. That is the essence of the Torah! The rest of the Torah is intended to develop the ethical and moral human being by addressing all physical and spiritual aspects of the human experience. If successful, the truly religious personality will be evident in how he or she interacts socially. If the individual’s interaction with society is concerned, sensitive, honest, and respectful, the person may also be G-dly and religious. If however the person’s social interaction is abusive, insensitive, uncaring, dishonest, and disrespectful that person is definitely neither G-dly nor religious! How religious and devotional he or she may appear to be is of zero consequence if the person is not socially moral and ethical.
However, how do we know if that which is hateful to me should also be hateful to you? How do I know if that which I find enjoyable should also be enjoyable to my friend? How do I know if my likes and dislikes are reflections of truth and morality?
The answer was contained in Hillel’s last words, “Now go and learn the rest of the Torah!” The only way to know whether our thoughts and feelings, desires and aspirations are true and moral is if we study G-d’s word. Through the intense study of Torah we are awoken to the absolute truths of G-d’s intentions and expectations. Torah becomes the template and scale by which we can guide and evaluate our relationship with G-d and society.
The bedrock of G-d’s expectations for our social behavior is belief in G-d and belief in the value of the individual. For example, a single moment of human life is as important to us as 120 years of life; it is neither more nor less valuable – it is of equal importance. Just as we must transgress Yom Kippur to save a person who might live to be 120 so too we are obligated to transgress the Yom Kippur to save a moment of life. Life is of infinite value and a little bit of infinity is no less infinite.
The essence of Parshas Mishpatim is the infinite value of the individual human. It, more so than any other value, is the basis of all true moral and ethical codes. It, more so than any other factor, is the essence of fairness and justice. Only a society that fully embraces the unalienable right of every single human to life can hope to succeed.
Following the giving of the Torah and our designation as G-d’s kingdom of priests and holy nation, G-d commanded Moshe to instruct the Bnai Yisroel in the basic laws of social interaction. In doing so, G-d gave us the means for accomplishing our national mission as His chosen teachers.
The prerequisite for Matan Torah was for the nation to attain the level of “As one man with one intent (heart).” The Bnai Yisroel had to be individually and collectively committed to doing G-d’s will with singular focus. The unity of the Jews was both the prerequisite and the ultimate goal; however, the ultimate goal was to extend that Achdus (unity) to the entire world, Jew and non-Jew alike. The ultimate goal of Achdus was for all of humanity to have equal commitment and devotion to the will of G-d. The Jew would always be the teacher. The Jew would always be commanded in more Mitzvos than the non-Jew, but the commitment and devotion to G-d would be exactly the same.
Unity does no require that everyone be and do the same thing. Just the opposite! It is far more difficult to find unity with two leaders who share equal talent, power and position than when there is unity between a single leader who delegates to his staff, each according to his or her abilities. I do not suggest that the Jew must be the ultimate king of humanity. There may be others (Eisav) far better equipped to “run the world;” however, the Jew will always be the teacher of G-d’s intention and wishes. It will always be the Jew who directs humanity toward their destinies as G-d’s servants.
The goal of the Jew, the goal of Matan Torah, was to effect unity in the nation and then the world. Parshas Mishpatim shows us how. Unity does not need sameness in appearance or thought. Unity does not require similar approaches to problem solving or organization. Unity requires that all components share the same goals and the same values. Starting with the value of human life, the most basic and fundamental of all values, the Torah commanded the Jew to be concerned, sensitive, honest, and respectful to everyone, regardless of social station or means. So long as the person is human, so long as the person has the capacity to serve G-d as G-d intended, we must respect the essence of that person’s existence.
The intrinsic and infinite value of human life is a value shared by all decent people, regardless of nationality, religion, or other. The value of human life should be the one value that unifies all humanity. At the very least we should all be able to agree with Hillel’s formulation, “”That which is hateful to you do not do to your friend!”.” I may not know what it is that you like but I sure as heck know what it is that hurts me. We may disagree on what feels good, but every normal person can agree on what does not feel good. So let’s start with the simplest and most basic of all values that every Jew and non-Jew can agree upon, “I won’t hurt you and you don’t hurt me.” Believe it or not, that is the beginning and the end (goal) of unity. That would be the beginning and the end (goal) of peace in the Middle East. It is a single value that all of us can and should agree upon. If we do, we will have tasted unity and the rest is magic.
The reason many unobservant Jews wish their children would marry other Jews, the reason we are able to be ourselves living behind the insular walls of Halacha, tradition, and community and still help the rest of the world attain closeness to G-d, the reason we feel comfort and security in the presence of another Jew and in the warmth and memories of our childhood homes, is because one Mitzvah, one agreed upon value, is all it takes for a young man or woman to change their lives, retrace their paths back to Sinai, and connect to the unity of “a single person with a single intent (heart).”
Rabbi Feldman Shlit’a, Rosh Hayeshiva of Ner Israel, explained the importance of a couple having a clearly stated and agreed upon goal for themselves and their family. The presence of a family goal provides the scale by which success and failure can be evaluated. It provides the safest means for a couple to recognize their individual and collective failure in attaining their goal without having to be the judge and jury of each other. The facts would speak for themselves. The same is true for the nation and the world. So long as we have an agreed upon value we can build the lasting unity that embraces differences, respects individuality, and promotes comfort and security for all people.
It was G-d’s intention that His Torah, the Seven Mitzvos commanded to all of humanity (children of Noach), and the additional 606 Mitzvos commanded to the Jews be the basis for the shared infinite value of human life, devotion and commitment to doing the will of G-d, and the unification of all nations. May it soon be His will that it be ours!
The author is the Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation, Valley Village, CA, and Assistant Principal of YULA.