Talmud Horyos 8a cites Rabbi Joshua ben Levi who first states that “the entire Torah” is equated to idolatry. He then makes a second statement that idolatry weighs against “all mitzvos”. What is the difference between these two statements? Are not “all mitzvos” and “the entire Torah” the same subject matter?
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi bases his first statement on the adjoined verses, “One Torah shall you have for the negligent sinner. And for the soul that sins brazenly….” (Numb. 15:29,30) He isolates the term “one Torah” that alludes to the treatment of the idolater, one who sins brazenly. Thus, “Torah” is a response to idolatry. As Maimonides teaches, “One who admits to idolatry is as if he denies all of Torah, and one who denies idolatry is as if he fulfills all of Torah”. (Laws of Star Worshippers 2:4) Rabbi Joshua ben Levi then refers to another verse “And when you are neglectful and do not perform all the mitzvos” (Numb. 15:22). Rashi on verses 22 and 27 (ibid) states these sins refer to idolatry. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi says that idolatry is akin to neglecting “all mitzvos”. We wonder at Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s distinction, and message, equating both “the entire Torah” and “all mitzvos” to idolatry. These two equations seem identical.
It would appear that Rabbi Joshua ben Levi understands the Torah as teaching this: no mitzvah has merit, if one commits idolatry. The concept that all mitzvos “weigh” against idolatry refers to the good of the mitzvah, vs. the evil of idolatry. And idolatry’s evil wins out. The diligent Torah scholar, supplicant Jew, or charitable philanthropist merits no good, if he is idolatrous. This is because all of his notions – regardless of the intent – are based on an imagined idea of the Creator, and an imagined god cannot reward man…since it doesn’t exist. Only the real God can reward man, and He only does so if man deserves reward, by worshipping Him and no other.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi also teaches another insight: man might think that regardless of his idolatrous tendencies, if he performed some act that corresponds in design to a mitzvah (i.e., he gave money to the poor) then this man deserves some reward, despite his idolatrous sins. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi thereby teaches that this is not so. There is no inherent or absolute good in my charity, if I think a stone object is the source of this moral code. In such a case, man is delusional, and his act of transferring money to a poor person does not in any manner register on the radar of a Torah action. This is quite profound.
This enlightens us to an entirely new understanding of mitzvah. Mitzvah is not defined by “action”. God recognizes a phenomenon as “mitzvah” only when we possess the correct thoughts of what God is, as far as humanly possible. A Rabbi (I am not sure if it was Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, or another Torah giant) was once asked of the fate of an extremely pious Jew who maintained that God was a “man in the sky with a white beard”. The Rabbi’s response was this, “Heaven save him, but he has no share in the World to Come”. This means that his life was a complete waste. Not one of his thousands of mitzvahs was worth anything. This must immediately awaken each one of us to review what our ideas are concerning God.
The most manifest idolatrous infraction is literal idol worship. But idolatry also includes the acceptance of powers other than God. This includes the belief in spirits, demons, and any other imagined power. For these beliefs dilute God’s exclusive reign, and mar our correct concept of God. Believing that a red string or a mezuza can shield from physical harm also assumes powers other than God. We must be sensitive to what the Torah isolates as idolatrous and superstitious, and recognize their underlying corruptions in modern day activities and notions. Then we must abandon such beliefs, and educate others to such corruptions. And only once our ideas concerning God are perfectly inline with the Torah’s words, do our actions have value.
Now, what is Rabbi Joshua ben Levi’s other lesson, that idolatry is equated to the “entire Torah”? How is the “entire Torah” different than “all mitzvos”? It would seem that this lesson is that the entire Torah has one objective: the removal of idolatry and recognition of one Creator. Unlike his first lesson that each mitzvah is worthless if we are idolatrous, here, Rabbi Joshua ben Levi teaches the vital role of rejecting idolatry, as the Torah’s primary target.
Torah is a system, as opposed to mitzvahs, which are components of that system. Some system’s components differ from the system’s overall objective. Take a watch: its gears have the objective of turning at certain speeds, and its springs are to exert forces. And that is all those components drive at, whereas the watch itself was made to indicate the current time…a different objective than its components. But in Torah, the elements and the system share the same objective: the rejection of idolatry. Why is this significant?
We must say that God’s design in creating each and every mitzvah must not have any other objective, than man’s recognition of God, in some manner. Each mitzvah must have this as its goal, for that is the purpose of man, and God would not give man any activity that did not drive us to realize something more about Him. Kosher laws help us to restrain our instincts, and in doing so, it sets the stage for a more calm personality…a personality that is more capable of hours of study. But one who eats what he wants, when he wants, develops an insatiable personality, and cannot restrain himself from temptations. He will study for a few moments, and then when an instinct seizes him, he will run to satisfy it. Waving the Esrog and Lulav remind us from Whom we are sustained with plant life and vegetation. Each and every mitzvah develops in us some new concept regarding the Creator.
Rabbi Joshua ben Levi teaches that in Torah, each step along the way must target the same objective as the system, unlike other phenomena. This is because in the realm of truths – which Torah is – all truths (all mitzvahs) are synonymous with God. What I mean is that anything we discover as “true”, reflects God, since it reveals His will. But in mechanics for example, it is just the opposite: components cannot hare the same objective as the machine, by definition. For if the gear or spring in a watch could tell time just like the watch, then the gear or spring would not be a gear or spring, nor would we require both components, since either one can tell time itself! So in mechanics, components have different objectives than the entire machine. But in Torah, a system of revealed truths, each and every truth by its very definition shines a small light on our concept of God. For truth means, “that which reflects God’s will”. Speaking of light, the torah says “Nare mitzvah, v’Torah Or” - “A (single) flame is a command, and Torah is light.” (Proverbs, 6:22) This statement verifies our position. Both mitzvah and Torah share the same goal.
Not only are we striving to realize God and reject idolatry in our overall goal (Torah), but our every action (mitzvah) has this objective as well.