Torah - The forest and the trees at one and the same time

It would be unthinkable that the Torah would command us to be a Holy nation dedicated to the service of God and human beings without telling us how this was to be achieved. (Diaspora reading)

Rabbi Berel Wein, | updated: 08:51

Rabbi Berel Wein
Rabbi Berel Wein
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The book of Vayikra contains most of the mitzvoth/commandments that appear in the Torah itself. Because of this, it contains relatively little narrative. Nevertheless, the number and quality of the commandments themselves demand our study and appreciation. The Torah apparently could have sufficed by itself by just saying “be a good person.” In fact, this was the slogan of many Jews and even of Jewish institutions and organizations in the past who claimed that none of the ritual commandments were necessary if one just remained “a good person.”

Of course, there was no unanimous opinion as to how to define who was a good person. The definitions varied from generation to generation and culture to culture. The henchmen of Joseph Stalin and perhaps even those of Adolf Hitler somehow justified every evil behavior in the belief that they were accomplishing some ultimate good that transcended the bothersome details of murder and genocide. The capacity of human beings to continually redefine good to fit any political agenda or current fad is truly limitless.

So, if it were not for the specific commandments of the Torah that have a defined, ultimate good for the Jewish people and for civilization generally over millennia, we would be at a loss to find any moral footing for our lives and behavior.

The Torah has always been the trees and the forest at one and the same time. It is the minute detail and a general pattern of behavior that represents the traditional view as to what makes up a good person.  As is often the case, many humans double down on the details and minutia of rules to the exclusion of seeing the general pattern of behavior into which they must fit. And, on the other hand, we find those that only see the general moral pattern and ignore the detailed instructions that give meaning and substance in daily life to this general moral pattern.

When we purchase a sophisticated piece of machinery we find that it always comes with detailed and sometimes very complicated instructions as to how this device is to be assembled, connected and installed. One may completely understand how the device works and what its ultimate benefit will be, but if one does not follow the instructions for installation, even as to its smallest detail, this device cannot be installed and will not work.

Without the detailed commandments, the general pattern of morality outlined in the Torah simply would never come into being. Jewish history attests to this.  It would be unthinkable that the Torah would command us to be a Holy nation dedicated to the service of God and human beings without telling us how this was to be achieved. It would not have shipped that necessary device to us without including instructions for its use in our everyday lives. This I believe this is the primary message of the Torah reading of this week.
 



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