Rabbi Bernie Fox






The Importance of a Just Society

And it was on the following day and Moshe sat to judge the nation.  And the nation stood by Moshe from the morning until the evening.  (Shemot 18:13)


        Moshe was the leader of Bnai Yisrael.  He cared for the people’s material and spiritual well-being.  Among his various tasks, he served as judge.  Each day, he devoted time to resolving the various disputes that inevitably arose among individuals.  The pasuk indicates that, at least on occasion, this required the entire day.  Rashi comments, that according to the Talmud in Tractate Megilah, the pasuk alludes to an important lesson.  The Talmud interprets the pasuk homiletically.  Moshe did not actually devote the entire day to judging the people.  The intent of the pasuk is to communicate the importance of this function.  One who judges justly – even for an hour – is equated to a scholar absorbed the entire day in the study of Torah.  Furthermore, the righteous judge is considered a partner with Hashem in the creation of the universe.[1]  One can easily appreciate that a judge plays an essential role in sustaining a just society.  However, describing a judge as Hashem’s partner in creation seems exaggerated.   


        The meaning of this lesson can be understood through an insightful comment of Rabbaynu Yonah.  Rabbaynu Yonah begins by noting an apparent contradiction in Pirke Avot.  Shimon HaTzadik teaches that the world is supported upon three pillars.  These are Torah study, service to Hashem and acts of kindness.[2]  Raban Shimon ben Gamliel asserts that the world exists by virtue of justice, truth, and peace.[3]  It seems that these two scholars are involved in a dispute regarding which practices and behaviors are most important.  Rabbaynu Yonah explains that, in reality, these scholars are not contradicting one another and do not disagree.  They are addressing two different issues.  Humanity was created with a purpose and mission.  What is this mission?  This is the issue that Shimon HaTzadik is addressing.  He explains that we are charged with the responsibility to seek the truth, serve the Creator, and act with kindness towards His other creations.  However, in order for humanity to achieve its goals, a social infrastructure is essential.  The advancement of humanity requires a coordinated effort; our goals are unattainable unless we can work together.  If this social infrastructure does not exist and humanity cannot pursue its mission, then the creation of humanity loses its meaning.  Raban Shimon ben Gamliel is identifying those elements that are essential to creating this social infrastructure.  A cohesive, functioning society requires must uphold justice; its members must act truthfully towards each other and goodwill must exist among its members.  A society lacking any one of these elements is doomed.


        In short, these two Sages do not argue.  Shimon HaTzadik is defining the purpose of humanity and its mission.  The achievement of this purpose requires a functioning society.  Raban Shimon ben Gamliel is outlining the fundamental elements of a healthy society.[4]


        Rabbaynu Yonah’s insight explains the teaching of our Sages quoted by Rashi.  An equitable judge establishes justice within society.  He helps create the society necessary for humanity to pursue its mission.  The judge works towards assuring that creation has meaning and purpose.  In this sense, the judge is a partner in creation.





The Mission of the Jewish People

And Moshe went forth from the nation to greet the L-rd from the encampment.  And they stood at the foot of the mountain. (Shemot 19:17)


        The pasuk describes Bnai Yisrael as standing at the foot of Sinai.  However, the Talmud comments that the nation stood under the mountain. Hashem uprooted Sinai and held it above Bnai Yisrael.  He told the people that if they would not accept the Torah, they would be buried under the mountain.[5]  If the comments of the Sages are intended to be understood literally, then it is strange that the Torah only makes reference to such a wonder through an allusion.  Had this event actually occurred, the revelation at Sinai was very different from the description provided by the explicit meaning of the passages.


        It seems that the Talmud is communicating to us two ideas. First, the development and existence of Bnai Yisrael is not a chance historical event.  Bnai Yisrael was created and fashioned by Hashem.  The nation was carefully nurtured in order to prepare it for revelation at Sinai and its acceptance of the Torah. This was Bnai Yisrael’s destiny and its mission.  Second, the exodus from Egypt and the awesome events of Sinai were essential elements of this process of preparation.  These wonders were designed to provide overpowering evidence of the omnipotence of Hashem and revelation.  They were designed to assure that Bnai Yisrael accept its mission.  In short, Bnai Yisrael was created and formed for the moment of revelation; acceptance of the Torah was virtually predetermined or compelled.  It was as if the mountain was raised over the heads of the people.





Inclusion of Conviction in the Existence of Hashem within Taryag

I am, Hashem, your Lord that brought you out from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.  (Shemot 20:2)


        This is the first statement of the Aseret HaDibrot – the Decalogue.  It presents the most fundamental premise of the Torah.  There is a G-d.  Maimonides understands this statement to be a commandment; we are commanded to accept the existence of a G-d who is the source of all reality.[6]


        The Halachot Gedolot differs with Maimonides.  The author maintains that although acceptance of G-d’s existence is fundamental to Judaism, it is not appropriate to classify this conviction as a commandment.  Nachmanides explains the reasoning of the Halachot Gedolot.  The six hundred thirteen commandments – the Taryag Mitzvot – can be compared to the decrees of a king.  These decrees presuppose the acceptance of the king as sovereign.  The act of acceptance is clearly not one of the decrees, but instead must precede them.  Based on this reasoning, acceptance of the existence of Hashem logically precedes the mitzvot and cannot properly be viewed as one of these commandments.[7]


        Rabbaynu Chasdia Kreskas also differs with Maimonides.  He presents a very powerful argument against defining acceptance of Hashem’s existence as a mitzvah.  He argues that every mitzvah, by definition, must engender some obligation or result.  A command to accept G-d’s existence could not meet this criterion.  Why?  To whom is the command directed?  If it is directed to a person who is already convinced, then the command engenders no new outcome.  This person is already convinced!  The alternative is even more absurd.  This would require that the command be directed to the non-believer.  But the non-believer could not take such a command seriously!  Through this argument, Rabbaynu Chasdai is illustrating the impossibility of legislating belief in G-d.  Based on this argument, Rabbaynu Chasdia sides with the Halachot Gedolot.  He concludes that conviction in the existence of Hashem precedes mitzvot and cannot be counted among Taryag.[8]


        Another criticism of Maimonides’ position questions the logic of a commandment that legislates any belief.  A person can be commanded or compelled to act or behave in a specific manner.  However, a person cannot be commanded to adopt a belief.  I person either accepts or rejects a specific.  Acceptance of a belief is not accomplished through an act of will. 


        How can Maimonides’ position be explained?  This issue provides a fundamental insight into Maimonides’ understanding of Taryag Mitzvot.  Apparently, Maimonides disagrees with a basic premise of the Halachot Gedolot.  This premise is that the mitzvot can be equated to decrees.  Maimonides seems to maintain that Taryag must be defined in a more inclusive manner.  He includes among the mitzvot, commandments that legislate actions and behaviors and others that describe beliefs.  Obviously, this second group of commandments cannot be regarded as legislative for the reason explained above.  However, they are included because combined with the other commandments they describe a model or a representation of human excellence.  Not all aspects of this model can be emulated through sheer willpower and determination.  Convictions cannot be attained through an act of will.  Nonetheless, these fundamental convictions are essential components to the Torah’s model of human excellence.  Without adoption to these beliefs, excellence has not been achieved. 


        In other words, according to Maimonides, Taryag can best be described as the basic blueprint for excellence in a person and nation.  This blueprint includes the guide to achieving this excellence as well as the basic description of the behaviors and convictions of the individual who embodies this excellence.  Based on this definition of Taryag, Maimonides’ position can be appreciated.  The most basic ingredient to human perfection is acceptance of Hashem who is the source of all other reality.  No description of the shalem – the perfected individual – can be construed which does not include this fundamental conviction.


[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 18:13.

[2] Mesechet Avot 1:2.

[3] Mesechet  Avot 1:18.

[4] Rabbaynu Yona ben Avraham of Gerona, Commentary on Mesechet Avot 1:2.

[5] Mesechet Shabbat 88a.

[6] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam/Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 1

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban/Nachmanides), Critique on Maimonides’ Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 1.

[8] Rabbaynu Chasdai Kreskas, Ohr Hashem, Introduction (HaTza’ah).