Bible’s Priorities

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

What is Bible? It is God’s guide for man’s most fulfilling life. The Rabbis teach (Ethics 2:1) that not all Bible topics are of equal value; some topics are fundamentals, and others are of lesser importance. But all are important and obligatory. As Rabbi Israel Chait taught, “There are many facets to human perfection, and we cannot perfect our full range of faculties by practicing only a few of Bible’s laws.” For this reason, God did not reveal the rewards for the commands, perhaps people would perform only those laws with the greatest reward, and abandon all others. The entire Torah exists as each law refines yet another element of our personalities and values. We require all laws.

My intent in this essay is to share important ideas, that will surface only through our patient sensitivity to God’s carefully-articulated verses. 

Last week’s Torah reading of Leviticus (11:44-46) concluded with these words addressing Kosher laws: 

44 — You shall not draw abomination upon yourselves through [eating] anything that creeps, (1)you shall not make yourselves impure therewith (2)and thus become impure. 

45 — For I am your God: (1)you shall make yourselves holy, (2)and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not make yourselves impure through [eating] any swarming thing that moves upon the earth. 

46 — For I Hashem am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt to be your God: you shall be holy, for I am holy.

Verse 44 prohibits being abominable; a negative matter. Verse 45 commands us in being holy, the positive flip-side of that same coin. But we notice a redundancy in both verses: 

Verse 44 says: 

(1) you shall not make yourselves impure  

(2) and thus become impure

Verse 45 says: 

(1) you shall make yourselves holy 

(2) and be holy

What is lost if Torah says just once in 44 “Don’t be abominable” and says just once in 45, “Be holy”? Why do both verses duplicate their messages? But be mindful that duplication does not exist in Bible. God does not repeat Himself. Even apparent duplications contain some distinctions and additional lessons.

Another interesting aspect of these verses is Rashi’s comment on verse 46, “For I Hashem am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt”: 

In all other places it is written, “I took you out of Egypt,” and here it is written “I brought you up.”  This difference was explained by the school of R. Ishmael:  “If I had brought up the Jews from Egypt only for this one matter—that they do not defile themselves by eating creeping things as do the other peoples—that would be sufficient for them to be brought up from Egypt (Bava Metzia 61b). 

And this is a “high” level for the Jews, and why God used the language of who “brought you up” from the land of Egypt”  [“brought you up” as in “raised you to a high level.”] 

The school of R. Ishmael explains this unique change of language. Usually, God says He “took us out of Egypt.” But here He says, “brought you up from Egypt.”  So we wonder: 

A) What is the unique element in abstaining from eating creeping creatures, that this alone warranted our Exodus? 

B) What is this “higher level” attained through abstaining from eating creeping things? 

C) And why isn’t abstention from idolatry or murder greater? 

We asked about the duplication in both verses. Rashi comments:

44 — If you become defiled thereby on earth, I will treat you as defiled in the world-to-come and in the heavenly academy.

45 — Because I will then treat you as holy, above and in the world-to-come.

Rashi brings the afterlife into the picture. The duplication in both verses is in fact not redundant. The first matters in both verses address our actions on Earth, and the second matter refers to the resulting state of our souls after we die. Rashi means this: if we (1)contaminate our souls here, we thereby (2)decrease our portion in the afterlife. But if we (1)control our appetitive lust for creeping animals here, we thereby (2)increase our afterlife.  

No Redundancy

Rashi removes the question of redundancy. But he raises a new question. Torah doesn’t say, “Don’t steal or murder, lest you lose your afterlife,” …it simply prohibits the sin. How is the afterlife more relevant to restraining our appetitive lusts than other matters, that Torah chooses to mention it here? 

Unrestrained Instinctual Gratification

Man has a flaw which is corrected by controlling his appetites. That flaw is the desire for unrestrained instinctual gratification. A base individual does not welcome any restraint or rebuke; he wants to do as he feels: “Do not rebuke a scoffer, for he will hate you” (Proverbs 9:8). His ego also contributes to his deafness towards Torah’s rebuke. But knowledge of one’s mortality directly weakens unrestrained instinctual satisfaction, as the realization of death tells us this unrestrained pleasure will face a most definite restraint. Man eats several times daily; a most prevalent instinctual gratification. Mortality has the greatest impact on our greatest gratifications. In what we crave most, we find the most disappointment when considering our mortality. Therefore, to cure us of excess, in these verses God connects mortality to an unrestrained appetite, to curb us in the matter where we are most excessive. If we don’t want a desire to end, if we crave unrestrained gratification, the best cure is God telling is that it does end…we die… and our souls pay an eternal price. 

Therefore, Rashi understands these verses as reminding man that his good or evil here on Earth, makes an indelible effect on his soul in his eternal afterlife. The afterlife is attained by those who channelled their energies away from lusts and towards wisdom. Our energies attach either to instinctual drives, or to wisdom. The Rabbis teach “Not all whom engage in business become wise” (Ethics 2:5). This is because when immersed in business, there are no energies left to immerse in wisdom and Torah. They also teach one who is sexually aroused to attend the study hall: “For if it is metal, it will melt.” Torah taps all man’s energies, and he cannot be engaged in both Torah study and sexuality. In fact, Torah study uses man’s energies to the greatest degree, as there is no frustration when delving in to wisdom. But all other pursuits cannot use all man’s energies, as they are limited in time or in satisfaction, and then man is frustrated as he has not satisfied all his energies. Only Torah results in pure satisfaction. 

What is Perfection? 

Most primary is that we don’t simply follow our emotions and instinctual drives. But sadly, this is the fate of a person oblivious to the inner world of psychology: “But the wicked are like the troubled sea” (Isaiah 57:20). Those blind to their emotions are controlled by them; one cannot steer away from what he cannot see.

Instead, by studying and then constantly monitoring our many instincts, we remain on guard of our psychological faculties and their dynamics. We can then detect when an emotion is exerting an urge, and we can thereby use our other component—our intellect—to choose whether to satisfy a desire, when to satisfy it, in what degree to satisfy it, and with what or with whom to satisfy it. But even this is not the end goal. For controlling and managing our desires merely sets the stage for us to redirect our contained energies towards pursuing God’s wisdom.

The school of R. Ishmael taught, “If I had brought up the Jews from Egypt only for this one matter—that they do not defile themselves by eating creeping things as do the other peoples—that would be sufficient for them to be brought up from Egypt.”

The act of perfection—mastery of one’s internal psychological world—surpasses studying volumes of Talmud (Rav Yisrael Salanter, Rabbi Israel Chait). Self control and keen moral values comprise perfection, while study does not guarantee perfection. The patriarchs and matriarchs validate this. God’s inclusion in Bible of their lives attests to perfection as a lifestyle, not the amount one’s studies. Our highest level is love and fear of God, when our actions conform to God’s will, not to our own desires. For this reason, Kosher law—restraint of our appetite—is a primary Biblical priority. Only one who becomes aware of his instincts, and guards against their rule over his actions, can achieve perfection, and the afterlife. Therefore, Kosher laws are most perfecting, to the point, that Kosher alone sufficed our redemption. This is Bible’s priority. 

In contrast, although refraining from stealing and murder are of course crucial, situations of violation do not present themselves multiple times daily, like eating. Thus, Kosher laws have a far greater reach and impact on man training his instincts away from gratification—“you shall not make yourselves impure “—and towards a life of wisdom—“you shall make yourselves holy.”