This week’s parsha has one of the largest number of commandments that appears in any one section of the Torah. One question that 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 to understand the general principles outlined in the Aseret Hadibrot – the Ten Commandments, which permeate all Jewish life?
Since we are aware of the goal of being a good, honest, and compassionate human being, shouldn’t that realization suffice without all 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 redundant to have these many instructions hurled upon us to achieve the goal that we are all aware of.
Rabbi Berel Wein, a noted Jewish historian, points out that this has always been the contention of some factions in Jewish life throughout history – the details of the commandments were not 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. Just be a good person, 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, including 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, and the cancel culture.
Good intentions without the restraint of details and commandments are, in fact, a danger to human society. Through the Torah commandments, Judaism offers instructions on how to become a good person and maintain a moral life. It teaches us that often 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 Ramban explains, that one can be a wicked person while believing oneself to be within the purview of the Torah. The balance between the ultimate goals and the details of how to achieve them makes Judaism unique, vibrant, and eternal. This balancing act is the secret to the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people throughout the ages.
Rabbi Shlomo Gabay