By Israel Drazin
The following is a brief version of an excerpt from “Beyond the Bible Text” by Rabbi Dr. Stanley Wagner and me that will be published in September 2013. We usually put three articles for each biblical portion, generally discussing thought-provoking subjects that people will not find elsewhere.
The Purpose of the Commandments
There are many answers to the question: what exactly is the purpose of the Torah commandments? One could answer: God’s commands teach people how to serve and be closer to God. Others might say: They are meant to instruct people how to live a better and happier life. Still others may object to the question and say: it’s inappropriate to ask this question; God commands and we must obey.
Midrash Genesis Rabbah states: “The commandments were only given for the purpose of refining humankind.” Maimonides reflects this idea and is more specific when he writes that Torah commands have three purposes:
To teach some truths
To help people improve
To develop society.
Maimonides advises people to develop proper habits so that when a situation arises that requires instantaneous action, people will act properly, according to the habit they developed. Deuteronomy 26:1–10 is an example how the Torah help people do it. It outlines the law of the “first fruits.” Maimonides (Guide of Perplexed 3:39) explains that the commandment enables people to train themselves to be charitable, to restrain themselves from eating and drinking excessively, to curb their material greed, and to cultivate humility. When farmers present the first fruits in Jerusalem, they make a prescribed declaration that recalls the ancient troubles and distresses in Egypt. This helps them to be less self-indulgent and uncharitable, and to learn the importance of gratitude and thanksgiving.
The Hebrew word for “refining,” used in the Midrash’s explanation of the purpose of the commandments, is le’tzareif. The term is applied to the process of refining gold and silver by extracting the impurities from its ore. Human beings also possess impurities. They are capable of being nasty, spiteful, violent, offensive, narcissistic, mean, inconsiderate, vulgar, obscene, and more. They need training in decency. The Midrash, like Maimonides, is saying that one of the most potent training forces in the world is Torah law. It is a high-powered refining process that improves human beings, provided they abide by the law.
Some Jews observe Torah ritual laws meticulously, such as the laws of kosher foods, Shabbat, family purity, festivals, and the recitation of blessings all day long, but their social behavior leaves much to be desired. They aren’t known for their integrity, goodness, or virtue.
Jewish sages have said that one who is mitzvah observant or who is learned in the law has a greater responsibility to act in an ethical manner than one who is less observant or less learned, because if such a person acts immorally, he is desecrating God’s name to a greater extent.
One final point, a very important one: note that the rabbinic dictum says “refining humankind” (Hebrew: beriyot) and not “Jews.” What is often ignored is that the Torah respects all people. Adam and Eve were not Jews, Christians, Muslims, or members of any religion, and the Torah states they were created in God’s image; so were all humankind.