What Difference Does it Make?

Rabbi Reuven Mann

This week’s Parsha, Re’eh, reiterates the theme of blessings and curses which is a major subject of the Book of Devarim. It begins on a positive note; “The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem , your G-d, that I command you today” (Deut. 11:27). The Rabbi say that just to hearken to the commandments constitutes a blessing. How are we to understand that teaching?

Anyone even remotely familiar with the Jewish religion knows that it is not a simple one to follow. Every Mitzvah, even those that seem uncomplicated, requires preparation and learning. Indeed there is an obligation to start studying for a Festival thirty days before it takes place. I’m not aware of any other religion which has a similar practice.

The reason for this feature is what is known as the Halachic System which forms the basic framework in which the divine commandments are performed. Thus it is impossible to fulfill the Mitzvot according to the literal meaning contained in the Scriptures. 

There are numerous reasons for this, not the least of which is the fact that Scripture in many cases does not provide sufficient information to enable us to proceed. No one would have any idea of how to fulfill the Mitzvah of Tefillin, for example, if all he had was the Written Law. 

And the same is true for virtually all the other Mitzvot. Every one contains a mass of information which needs a phenomenal study effort to intellectually master. And the pertinent objects and activities required by the commandments are determined and validated by the Halachic process which operates according to its own principles and definitions.

So for example on the holiday of Sukkot the Torah commands us to dwell in “booths” for seven days. But what does that mean? What constitutes a “booth” that is valid for the proper performance of this commandment? Well, you might say that this question can be answered by reference to the reason for the Mitzvah that is provided in the Torah. The verse commands us to dwell in booths so that, “Your descendants will know that I housed the children of Israel in booths when I took them out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 23:43).

The holiday of Sukkot commemorates the Divine Providence which accompanied the Jews during their lengthy trek in the Wilderness. By living in flimsy huts we reenact that experience and review the important lessons we can learn from it. 

Therefore, you might say we can observe this Mitzvah with any type of minimal dwelling such as a tent or a hut. How many walls must this structure have, what type of materials can it be made of, what type of furnishings should it have and so forth?

The average person would say, “What difference does it make?” As long as I leave my house and take up residence in an outdoor type of habitation all the while mindful of the Wilderness experience it’s supposed to remind me of, everything should be alright, right?

Actually no. One who spends the entire Sukkot holiday in a tent, eating, sleeping and conducting all his activities there and fully immersed and absorbed in the spiritual teachings of the chag, has unfortunately not fulfilled the Mitzvah at all. Though he sincerely tried he did not perform the commandment to “dwell in booths for seven days”. Why not? Because the Halachic system does not define the structure he has put together as a Succah. It is therefore, no different than if he had stayed in his house. The entity which Halacha recognizes as a valid Succah is one which conforms to the Halachic definitions regarding walls a roof and proper materials.

There is thus a disparity between the philosophical purpose of the Succah commandment and the technical Halachic requirements determining how it is to be fulfilled. For example the roof cannot be made from any material. It can only be made from things that grow from the ground and have not been fashioned into a vessel.

What is the reason for the rules pertaining to the Scach (roof covering)? It does not seem that a Halachicly valid roof facilitates achievement of the mitzvah’s purpose any better than one made of non-acceptable materials. However, we must recognize that the Mitzvah is composed of two distinct components, the purpose and the performance.

Every mitzvah has a goal and reason as the Rambam makes clear in his Moreh Nevuchim. However the objects utilized in the performance of the commandment and the nature of the actions required do not necessarily conform to the ultimate philosophical objective of the Mitzvah. At a certain point the Halachic and philosophical lines diverge with each going its own way.

I believe that many people are troubled by the seemingly arbitrary and pointless legalistic requirements that pertain to various Mitzvot. However, the Halachic minutiae are very important. The greatest minds our nation has produced devoted their entire lives to endless Talmudic study. The primary focus of Jewish genius has been the mastery over all issues pertaining to and necessary for the fulfillment of the Mitzvot not only its theological lessons but it’s Halachic formulation as well.

Judaism maintains that in order to serve Hashem properly one must be rooted in the unshakable belief that our Torah comes to us from heaven. This means that we are obligated by the Creator to fulfill the 613 commandments honestly and scrupulously.

In order to do this we must affirm the absolute veracity of the “Oral Law.” This is the belief that Moshe spent forty days and nights on Mt. Sinai learning from Hashem all of the Halachic requirements of the 613 commandments. This body of law and interpretation was transmitted to the greatest Torah scholars of the time who then gave it over to the leading scholars of the next generation. The chain of Torah transmission has remained unbroken to the present day.

So that the Torah we observe today is the same one that was kept by Rashi and the Rambam and the Vilna Gaon and so forth. The necessity for the very strictly defined Talmudic categories which govern virtually every aspect of religious activity serves two major purposes. 

First of all the Halachic formulations are extremely abstract and are an expression of Hashem’s Infinite wisdom. Just as a genuine (and humble) scientist trembles with awe of the Creator when he contemplates the intellectual magnificence of the world of nature, so too does the advanced Talmudic student encounter the divine majesty when he obtains insight into the Halachic structures. The awareness that when we are learning Gemara we are studying the “thoughts of Hashem” has a profound spiritual impact on all who engage in this activity. This intellectual encounter with the Creator elevates us to a higher moral and ethical plane.

And the Halachic system is absolutely vital to retaining the preservation of our religion. For if everyone used the approach outlined above of performing a mitzva according to his perception of its purpose, Judaism would soon dissipate into many religions far too numerous to count. And there would be no Jewish People.

It is therefore necessary to cherish the Mitzvot not only in terms of their purposes and moral insights but also in terms of how they are to be performed. We should be very wary of unwarranted innovations and recognize the dangers they pose for the true preservation of the authentic Torah. It is only by our nation’s commitment to the Written and Oral Torah which was revealed at Sinai that the ideal unity of the Jewish People can be attained. And therefore our Parsha asserts that the blessing is that we hearken to the commandments of Hashem which have been transmitted to us by the greatest prophet, Moshe Rabbenu. May we merit to achieve this.

Shabbat Shalom