What are the key turning points in history? What are the events that changed the world beyond recognition and whose impact was felt by everyone, everywhere? You could talk about the invention of the electric light bulb, or Gutenberg’s printing press. You could mention the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, which set off World War I, and led to World War II, or the French and American Revolutions, or the fall of the Berlin Wall. More recent examples could be 9/11 or the 2008 Crash or the invention of the Internet.
But, in this week’s parsha, Yitro, we encounter history’s single biggest turning point, a moment that changed everything, for everyone, forever: the giving of the Torah by God to Moses and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. From this moment onwards, nothing would be the same. The Torah had entered the world.
But, what is the Torah really? And why is its impact so powerful and far-reaching? We know that the Torah comprises 613 distinct commandments – the mitzvot – but what is their meaning and purpose?
The starting point is to understand that the Torah’s total focus is the human being. This is expressed most vividly in the Talmud (Shabbat 88b), which records how, when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from God, the angels vehemently protested, asking how God could consider giving away His most treasured possession – the Torah – to a creature of flesh and blood. God told Moses to answer the angels, and Moses proceeded to list the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God, Who took you out of Egypt”; “Honour your father and your mother”; “Don’t murder”; “Don’t steal”; “Don’t commit adultery”. “Do you have a father and mother?” Moses asked the angels. “Have you been enslaved in Egypt? Have you passion or jealousy or greed, or any evil inclination?” In so doing, Moses clearly demonstrated that the Torah was intended for human beings. Or, put another way, human beings are created in order to fulfil the mitzvot of the Torah.
But, how do the mitzvot work?
The Torah calls the first human being Adam, which comes from the Hebrew word adama, meaning “earth” or “ground”. What is the connection between the two? The Maharal explains that humans are similar to the ground in one essential respect: they are both pure potential. Whether or not a piece of land will produce fruit depends on what is done with it. Even the most fertile piece of land will not produce fruit if it is left to lie fallow; it needs to be ploughed, fertilised and cultivated. So too, the human being is pure potential, and to live a fruitful, productive life requires great and continuous efforts. We arrive in this world as pure potential and, through the process of life, we actualise that potential. And it’s up to us. We have been given free choice to turn that potential into personal growth and spiritual greatness, into becoming refined, elevated, moral and holy – but we can also choose to squander it and simply let it lie dormant.
The Maharal (Tiferet Yisrael, chapters 6-8) says the 613 mitzvot are a blueprint for us to “create ourselves” – to access and actualise our Godly potential. The mitzvot have been specifically designed by our Creator to catalyse our latent spiritual energy. At its heart, this process of self-actualisation – of converting potential into actuality through performing the mitzvot – is an act of sublime creativity.
What are the mechanics here? How exactly do the mitzvot unleash our Divine potential? The Maharal explains that the mitzvot have been formulated by the Creator of everything, and therefore have the spiritual energy to develop the full potential of the human being. There is a natural bridge between Torah and the soul. With every new mitzvah we perform, we create a corresponding extra dimension within our soul. In essence, by living in tune with Torah, we live in tune with our soul; by living a true Torah life, we nurture and expand our spiritual selves.
Living in harmony with the soul brings with it a deep sense of spiritual connection and tranquillity of spirit. Indeed, the Midrash says the union between body and soul is fraught with tension. These two constituent parts of the human being come from different worlds, and have different needs. The Midrash illustrates this with the analogy of a marriage between a farmer and a princess; the farmer brings the princess all of the produce from the field that is so precious to him, but which is meaningless to her. So too, the body brings the soul all of the physical pleasures of this world, but the soul remains empty and unsatisfied. The soul originates from the palace of God and requires the goods of the spiritual world to feel satisfied and fulfilled. It requires a life of meaning and good deeds, and a connection to God, which the Torah provides. This is what gives us satisfaction and pleasure at a deep level.
There are many ways to demonstrate this. For example, we’ve all experienced the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from giving to others. A recent research project conducted by Michael Norton of Harvard Business School found that, regardless of income level, those people who spent money on others reported greater happiness, while those who spent more on themselves did not.
On the other end of the spectrum, there is the feeling of guilt – the deep sense of spiritual unease we experience – when we do things that are not in harmony with the soul.
Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, known as the Ramban, explores another way the mitzvot are catalysts to unleash the full potential of a person. He emphasises that the mitzvot are not for God’s benefit, even though He commanded us to perform them. He says God gave us the mitzvot for our own sakes – to mould us into better people. According to the Ramban, each mitzvah refines us in a particular way. He gives the example of the mitzvah to send away the mother bird before taking the chicks or the eggs from the nest, and how this helps us cultivate the quality of compassion. He also refers to the mitzvot of commemorating the great miracles of Jewish history. These are not, he says, for glorifying God, but rather for our own sake, so we should understand and appreciate these formative moments of our people, and so we can reinforce our faith and clarify our worldview.
According to this, the mitzvot are a comprehensive programme of thought and action designed by God to help us become wise, compassionate, refined, loving, idealistic, giving, courageous, spiritual, ethical and holy. To help us become better people in every conceivable way.
So, from the moment in history when we received the Torah, life would never be the same. From that moment on, we had a blueprint for how to live life, how to love life, and how to fulfil our awesome potential.
Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein
The writer, who has a PhD. in Human Rights Law, is the chief rabbi of South Africa