The purpose of the Torah


This week’s Torah portion is called Mishpatim, which means “laws,” and, true to its name, it contains more than 50 specific mitzvot (commandments). Many of these mitzvot make sense to us as urgent ethical imperatives. They prohibit bribery, gossip, giving false testimony, and mistreating widows and orphans. This weeks Torah portion includes mitzvot to provide food for the needy. It also contains the most often repeated mitzvah in the entire Torah: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt(Exodus 22:20). Good rules, all of those.

But this week’s Torah portion also includes mitzvot that are inexplicable to us – laws that are difficult for us to understand in the modern world. For example, one commandment requires that Hebrew slaves who refuse to be set free at the end of their terms of service must have their ears pierced with an awl (Exodus 21:5-6). They must remain slaves for life. How do we make sense of that?

Contemporary Jews can feel impressed by the wisdom of the Torah’s ethical laws and feel their weight upon us. Even if we are sometimes tempted to gossip, for example, we recognize the harm that gossip does, and we recognize that this mitzvah makes sense for living a better life. But other mitzvot – like the law concerning the slave who refuses freedommake little sense to us and may not inspire any obligation in us. Some mitzvot – like the commandment to put a child to death for insulting his or her parentsshould make us feel an obligation to reject them.

We may feel a need to sort the mitzvot into categoriesto decide which are important, which are problematic, which we consider timeless, and which we reject. We want to pick and choose. Yet, the Torah does not admit a distinction. The mitzvot are the mitzvot. They are what God expects us to do. How do we deal with that?

In the early decades of American Reform Judaism, the movement’s leaders attempted to answer that question by explicitly stating that the standards had changed. They wrote in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, “We … reject all such [Torah laws] as are not adapted to the views and habits of modern civilization.”

Since the times of the Pittsburgh Platform, Reform Judaism has backed away from such a bold rejection of some parts of the Torah. The movement has slowly tried to find a balance between the concerns of the modern age that reject the irrational and anachronistic, and the concerns of Jewish faith that hear the Torah as divinely inspired and transcendent beyond the passing tastes and preferences of our times. If Torah is holy, we must be willing to hear it even when it seems difficult or out of step with our times.

There is nothing new about this. Parts of the Torah were also challenging to the ancient rabbis. You don’t like the way the Torah allows masters to treat their slaves? Neither did the sages of the Talmud. However, rather than just saying that the Torah was wrong, the rabbis used the power of interpretation to find deeper meaning.

According to the Talmud, there is a hidden message in the mitzvah to pierce the ear of the slave who refuses freedom. The Torah says that this slave believestov lo imach” (Deuteronomy 15:16). The simplest reading of the phrase is “it is good for him to be with you,” meaning that the slave says he is happy to be your servant. However, the Hebrew could also be read to mean, “It is as good for him as it is for you.” The Talmud jumps to this reading and states that a Hebrew slave must be treated as his master’s equal – as good for him as it is for you. The rabbis say a Hebrew slave must be fed the same food as his master and given a feather bed like his master’s bed. They conclude from this that, “When you buy a Hebrew slave, it is like buying yourself a master” (B. Kiddushin 22a).

What at first seemed like a law for turning temporary slaves into a permanent slaves is actually, according to the rabbis, a spiritual lesson about the price we pay when we force or coerce others to do our will. The price of enslaving others is that we become slaves ourselves. 

This is not just gamesmanship, flipping around the words of the Torah to get it to say whatever we want it to say. It is, rather, an act of love. The rabbis loved the Torah so much that they struggled to find meaning in it, even in the places where it seems harsh or difficult. 

We do the same thing with the people we love. When you love someone who has a difficult personality, you take extra pains to know that person more deeply, to understand the experiences that have shaped him or her so you can respond compassionately and with forgiveness, even when that person is being difficult. The Torah is like that, too. It was raised in an age when slavery was common, when men had tremendous power over women, and when most people had little control over their destiny. The Torah is shaped by those experiences. Because the rabbis loved the Torah, they probed it deeply to understand it and to read it compassionately as a text that brings deeper spirituality and meaning into life.

In our own day, we continue the process of interpreting the Torah. We don’t need to reject Torah to deal with its difficulties. In fact, we embrace the idea that Torah should be difficult. It should challenge us to find meaning in our lives. Life, we know, is not easy, and we need to learn how to negotiate life’s challenges and hardships while maintaining our ability to find joy in it.

The purpose of the Torah is not to instruct us in what to do and what not to do. The purpose of the Torah is to force us to be mindful about what we are doing and to hold it up to a standard that does not originate from our own heads. The Torah is about disciplining ourselves to recognize that our lives belong to something beyond ourselves, and to make us aware that the choices we make in life reflect that truth.

Rather than thinking of the Torah’s mitzvot as a kind of checklist of things we have to do and not do to please God, think of them instead as part of a conversation we are having with God. Like a good teacher, Torah does not want us to just memorize facts that will be on the test. Torah wants us to consider what we are doing, learn to assess our actions against our values, to find new meaning in our lives by brightening our spiritual dimension, and deepening our relationship with God by continuing the conversation. 

We don’t need to reject parts of the Torah, as the Pittsburgh Platform sought to do. We need to open it lovingly and measure it against our own experience of life, as the rabbis of the Talmud did.

The Torah is the book of wisdom that God gave us as a wedding gift on the day we were married at Mount Sinai. It is a book that wants to be read joyfully. It wants us to linger over each phrase to discover hidden treasures that help us to understand ourselves more deeply, especially in the difficult parts. Torah gives us mitzvot, not to enslave us to a legal code, but to free us to discover who we really are. 

Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser is the spiritual leader of Temple Sinai in Cranston. He is the author of the blog, from which this d’var Torah is adapted.