The Torah reading for this week is a double portion, which together contains the largest number of commandments that appears in any one section of the holy Torah. One question which has challenged Judaism throughout the ages is why do we need so many commandments to fulfill our obligation to be good, kind, and faithful? Is it not sufficient that we understand the general principles as outlined in the Ten Commandments, which permeate all Jewish life and scholarship?
Since we are aware of the goal – namely that of being a good, honest, and compassionate human being – shouldn’t that realization suffice and not require all of the particular details that make up the bulk of this week’s Torah reading. Even though we understand, as any lawyer will tell you, that the devil is in the details, at first glance and even with a superficial understanding, it seems completely superfluous to have these many instructions hurled upon us, to achieve the goal that we are all aware of.
By the way, this has always been the contention of some factions in Jewish life through history – that the details of the commandments were not really that important, but as a Jew, it was crucial to be a good person at heart. This was the contention of the ancient Sadducees in second Temple times and continues to be the philosophy of all those groups that deviated from Jewish tradition and observance of the Torah Commandments throughout the ages. It remains, even today, the banner of the non-Orthodox groups that loudly proclaim and justify their essential non-Jewish Jewishness. To them, the details are unnecessary, burdensome and of little value. Just be a good person, they proclaim, and that alone is the essence of Judaism.
But human history teaches us differently. As has been famously articulated: the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and good intentions often lead to tyranny over others, and even to murder and genocide. Without the details, how are good intentions to be fulfilled. We cannot rely upon human judgment to guarantee that those good intentions will ever be realized.
The worst dictators and murders of the past few centuries such as Napoleon, the Kaiser, and even Hitler and Stalin always proclaimed that they had good intentions for their country, and, in fact, for all of mankind. They maintained that to achieve those good intentions they were entitled to use force and coercion against millions of others, to actualize their good objectives.
In our current world society, good intentions alone, without the restraint of the commandments and details, led to the murder of millions of unborn but living fetuses, concentration camps, gulags, the cancel culture, and the tyranny of the majority over the minority, no matter how slight the margin of majority in terms of numbers and popularity.
Good intentions without the restraint of details and commandments are, in fact, a danger, and not a boon to human society. Through the Torah commandments, Judaism offers instructions as how to become a good person and maintain a moral life. It teaches us that oftentimes it is the minority, not the majority, that is correct.
Even though the goal of being a good and holy person should never be forgotten – for otherwise the observance of the details would be of little value, as is noted by Ramban, that one can be a wicked person while believing oneself to be within the purview of the Torah. It is the balance between the great ultimate goals and the details of how to achieve that. which makes Judaism unique, vibrant, and eternal. This balancing act is the secret of the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people throughout the ages.
Rabbi Berel Wein