So what do we need this Torah for anyway? Why should our lives be bound by a collection of tales and precepts that claims to have been conveyed by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, seven weeks after the Exodus? It’s a legitimate and important question as we embark, tonight and tomorrow, on Shavu’ot, the holiday that commemorates the revelation at Sinai.
The psychological view is that human beings need a framework, discipline, and the Torah provides us with a life-plan that makes us better people. The problem with that is that if we look around us we can see people who are meticulous in their observance of ritual but are not just or righteous in their ways. The sages had a name for this kind of person: naval be-reshut ha-Torah-a scoundrel with Torah sanction.
The simplistic view is that God made a deal with us and, if we keep up our end of the bargain by observing the commandments, we get rewarded. The problem is that, objectively, if we put this concept to empirical test, it doesn’t work. The rabbis knew that. On page 9b of the Berachot tractate of the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Zeira performs just such a test. Discussing the proper order of prayer, Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Elyakim declares that everyone who goes straight from the blessing of redemption into the Amidah prayer can suffer no harm. Rabbi Zeira shoots back: “I went straight from redemption to prayer and I was harmed.”
And there are other answers-we observe the commandments because that’s what Jews have always done (well, usually, until recently), or to get back at Hitler and his like, who wanted to rid the world of the Torah.
What’s clear is that the Torah doesn’t guarantee any of these things. It doesn’t automatically make us better people, it doesn’t automatically reward us, it doesn’t guarantee Jewish continuity. So why bother?
But this is perhaps a sign of the Torah’s greatness. Because it guarantees nothing, it leaves moral choice in the hands of each and every Jew. A person can perform the commandments by rote and never consider the moral implications of what she is doing. But if one chooses to observe and to think-and it’s a choice one must make, not an easy one-it forces one to think hard, about every action, about what it means and what its consequences will be.
The Torah can be a refuge for those who choose not to think, but that’s not how its scholars and greatest practitioners viewed it. In the section of the Book of Numbers we read in synagogue on Shabbat, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno comments on the commandments regarding the Nazarite. The Nazarite was a Jew who took upon himself special holy vows for a fixed period of time. He is not to cut his hair, refrain from drinking wine and eating grapes and their products, and avoid contamination by corpses. Sforno, who lived in Italy and was well-acquainted with Christian monasticism, notes the relative mildness of the Nazarite vows as compared to those demanded by monastic orders. The reason the Nazarite’s vows are mild, he says, is because more extreme asceticism distracts the mind and makes it hard to study and think. To demand that of a man or women who seeks to enter a holier state would be to obviate the entire purpose of God’s revelation, he says.
In the end, then, the Torah isn’t good for anything-unless we consciously and deliberately choose to make it so. If we make that choice, we are rewarded, and we become better people.