MORE IS MORE
Rabbi David Walk
This is a difficult parsha for me. It seems like a shopping list of mitzvoth. Perhaps, it's even worse, because often when I'm given a shopping list I can discern either a specific dish is going to be prepared or a type of event being planned for. But in our parsha I see no pattern emerge from this potpourri of Divine commands. We cover warfare, marriage, animal rights, business practices, ecology, and criminal law. There is absolutely no narrative to tie this material together. It's almost as if, Moshe and God were feeling that they're almost at the end of the book and a lot of instructions were left out, let's just catalog them now. So, it's perhaps easiest to pick an interesting halacha, and spend the article discussing that, but I'd like to explore an interesting idea that I think our parsha teaches us.
There is an extremely important saying, which has become popular because it has been incorporated into our recitation of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Ancestors): Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya said: The Holy One, blessed be He, wanted to give Israel merit; therefore He gave them Torah and commandments in abundance, as it is written: 'G-d wanted, for its righteousness, to magnify the Torah and make it mighty' (Isaiah 42:21). Even though this has become the closing statement for our weekly study of Pirkei Avot during the summer months, it really is a mishna from the end of tractate Makot (23b). There the Sages discuss how many mitzvoth are contained in our Torah, and conclude that there are two hundred and forty-eight positive commandments and three hundred and sixty-five negative commandments for a grand total of six hundred and thirteen. Rebbe Chananya then teaches that this large number of mitzvoth is to our advantage. But why?
I'd like to present three positions on this famous question of what is the benefit of having so many mitzvoth. I think most readers could come up with a mitzvah or two that we could do without, or at least take a weekend off from. But we'll work with the hand we've been dealt, even though it sometimes feels like there are too many cards to hold comfortably. In most standard editions of Talmud there is a commentary on Rav Yosef Alfasi's legal abridgement of the text, but we're not sure who wrote it (either Rabbeinu Nissim or Nemukei Yosef) in any case our mystery scholar makes the following observation: there are a lot negative mitzvoth out there, like not drinking blood or eating bugs, that God listed to give us credit for refraining from acts that we wouldn't have done anyway. Hence we've been given some free extra credit. That's the great benefit of the increased number of mitzvoth.
Maimonides, in his commentary on this mishna, makes a fascinating comment. Really God lets into heaven anyone who has performed even one mitzvah completely, that means with absolutely no ulterior motives and with pure love. So, along comes Rebbe Chananya ben Akashya and informs us that the sheer mass of mitzvoth is so vast that it's impossible that a sincere seeker of spiritual growth can't find at least one that each person can perform with perfection. Ergo, everyone interested should be able to attain
The Sefer Hachinuch, on the other hand, translates the statement of Rebbe Chananya a bit differently. We've been assuming that the Hebrew word l'zakot means to bestow merit. However, the Chinuch renders that term as purify, as in pure olive oil shemen zait zach. Therefore, he understands this concept to mean that each mitzvah performance purifies our souls in a different way. No matter how sullied our spiritual side may have become during this sojourn on earth, there is a cleansing commandment to remove the filth. The volume of mitzvoth achieves a perfect refining of our souls.
So, we see in this week's Torah reading a tremendous up side to this catalog of mitzvoth. We shouldn't look at this dismayingly long inventory of mitzvoth as a daunting task, perhaps even an impossible mission, but as an opportunity to gain God's favor. The stock is so vast that any good intentioned individual can't possibly avoid mitzvah performance at some point, even by accident. That's cool.
But let's go back to the original verse from Isaiah, which inspired Rebbe Chananya's discovery in the first place. The S'fat Emet writing in 1883 noticed an anomaly in the normal translation. First the Rebbe commented that God intended that the Jews have a central position in the spiritual growth of the entire world. Our obligation to perform mitzvoth is an enormous factor in our world. God fixes (tikun) and renews our world through the agency of the Jewish people, who establish this connection with our adherence to Torah and mitzvoth.
Here's the problem: We translated yagdil Torah v'adir as 'magnify the Torah and make it mighty'. However the Hebrew word we rendered as magnify is yagdil which is in the future tense. So, the Rebbe adds another comment to incorporate that critical detail. This special role of the Jews isn't only based on the Torah given in the desert and the mitzvoth so many of which are in our parsha, the importance of the Jews is that we will continue to add to the amount of Torah in the world through increasing the Oral Torah material. The mitzvah performance of the Jews gives us insights into the reality of Torah which allows us to continually add interpretations and commentaries which increase the amount of Torah. The majesty of Torah is enhanced by continually adding to it as new circumstances arise. This is perhaps why we recite the words of Rebbe Chananya as a prelude to the Kaddish honoring the Rabbis.
Now we understand the special place of this week's Torah reading. All these mitzvoth give us the inspiration to increase the corpus of Torah material. Study is not the catalyst to the growth of Torah. Mitzvoth are. We study to know how to do mitzvoth; we do mitzvoth to give us insight to keep Torah growing.
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