Toldot: The meaning of Mitzvah

Copyright 2014 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Toldot

I’m pleased to note that this d’var Torah will be sent out by the Jewish Federation of North America as their weekly Mekor Chaim Torah portion email.

I will make your heirs as numerous as the stars of heaven, and assign to your heirs all these lands, so that all the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your heirs- inasmuch as Abraham obeyed Me and kept My charge: My commandments, My laws, and My teachings.” (Genesis 26:4-5)

The Torah portion Toldot is best known for the interactions between Yaakov and his brother Esav, but it’s also the story of their father Yitzhak, who in turn reenacts some of the narrative of his father, Avraham. Yitzhak, like Avraham, has to leave where he’s living because of famine, but instead of going down to Egypt, he visits the land of Philistines, again like his father did on a different occasion. In fact, Yitzhak hears a Divine voice telling him in no uncertain terms not to go to Egypt, but instead to stay in the land of Israel, which he will someday inherit because of the merit of his father Avraham.

The verse quoted above lists all the ways that Avraham was committed to the service of God, but note the wording:  Avraham didn’t just “obey” God, but kept God’s “charge,” “commandments,” “laws,” and “teachings.” The medieval scholar Rashi, assuming that the Torah doesn’t use words superfluously, understands each of these four things as a separate category. For example, following the usual definition in rabbinic thought, Rashi understands “My laws,” chukotai,  as referring to practices without an obvious rational basis, such as the prohibition against mixing wool and linen in a garment. (How Avraham could have observed a law given in the Torah many years later is a discussion for another time.)

Yet it’s Rashi’s definition of mitzvotai, “My commandments,” which is most surprising. Everybody knows that mitzvah means “commandment,” which in turn means something distinctly Jewish like lighting Shabbat candles or blowing the shofar. That’s not at all how Rashi defines mitzvah in this passage. He says mitzvah means “things that, even if they weren’t written down, would have been appropriate to command, like [the prohibition of] stealing and bloodshed.”

In other words, mitzvah doesn’t just mean commandments with specific Jewish content, but also broad and universal moral principles, ones which rational people can figure out for themselves. Well, you might ask, if those broad moral principles, like not stealing, cheating or hurting others, are so obvious, why do they need to be part of Judaism at all?

To me, we include universal moral principles in our mitzvot, commandments, for two reasons. The first is that our behavior is judged by others; to live a good life is akiddush Hashem, literally “making holy the Name,” but understood as something which increases respect for the Torah and God of Israel. The second reason is thatmitzvot are opportunities for spiritual awareness; we take ordinary actions and raise them to Heaven when we remember that something as simple as paying our workers on time or respecting another’s property is a mitzvah, a holy act.

To put it another way, everybody on earth is expected to be a good person; Judaism teaches that being a good person is inseparable from living a holy life. Holding on to our goodness in a world of cynicism is no easy thing. Perhaps that’s why observing a universal moral code is part of Avraham’s greatness and merit; he was willing to live a God-centered life in all his deeds, both ethical and ritual, and thus became the spiritual father of three great religions.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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