Festival Prayers: Ata Vichartanu: Mussaf: The Profundities of Torah: Shavuot: The Mitzvot Transform Us

Jun 6th, 2011 by Rabbi Simcha Weinberg in Holidays, Prayer
“And You sanctified us With Your Commandments.” “Hashem came forth from Sinai, shone forth to them from Seir, having appeared to them from Mount Paran” (Devarim 33:2)

The Midrash records that prior to Hashem offering the Torah to Bnei Yisroel, He made it available to the nations of the world. He offered it to the children of Esau (who lived in the land of Seir). When they discovered that it contained the prohibition of murder, they rejected the Torah on the grounds that, by nature, they were a violent people.

A similar result occurred when Hashem offered the Torah to the children of Yishmael (living in Paran). They rejected it, for it contained the prohibition of stealing.1

The following difficulties have to be dealt with:  Firstly, the two precepts that were rejected, namely “Do not murder” and “Do not steal”, are already included in the Seven Noachide Laws.2 Therefore, they are already bound to uphold these precepts. Secondly, the precepts as they appear in the Noachide Laws are more severe than they are in the Torah. The punishment for theft in the Torah is a payment of twice the principle.3 The Noachide Laws are capital offenses. To be found guilty by a Jewish court, two witnesses must be present at the scene of the crime, and a warning to the perpetrator had to have been issued. This is not required to convict according to the Noachide Laws. Why were they rejecting the Torah based upon precepts that would have been less restrictive than those that they were already obligated to keep?

The Rambam in his introduction to Pirkei Avos poses the following question: Which is a higher service of Hashem, one who by nature does not have the desire to violate the precepts, or one who struggles with the desire, finally conquering his evil inclination, and does the will of Hashem?4

The Rambam comes to the following conclusion: In the Torah we find two categories of Mitzvos (precepts). There are those that, by nature, we sense the obligation to uphold. We understand that violating them would be doing something intrinsically wrong  (i.e. murder, stealing, adultery).

The second category of precepts is those that we would have no inkling of them being prohibited, were it not for Hashem restricting us from doing them (i.e. cooking milk together with meat, shaatnez, etc.). Concerning those that we identify as being wrong, the Torah obligates us not to desire to do them. The soul that adheres to these precepts, but desires to do them is defective. Concerning those with which we do not associate an intrinsic wrong, the higher level of adherence is desiring to do them, but restraining only because Hashem commands us to do so.

The difference between the Seven Noachide Laws and the 613 Torah laws is not only quantitative, but qualitative as well. The Noachide Laws are essentially a directive to insure that society does not self-destruct. Noachide man is only commanded to act, or desist from acting in a certain manner. There is no obligation to inculcate the precept into his very being, no obligation regarding his thoughts or sensitivities. Torah law requires more than providing a functioning society; it requires that man be a reflection of his Maker. This is attained by incorporating the precepts into our very being. “Do not steal” is not merely do not commit the crime; rather our very being is required to be reviled by the act of stealing.

Those precepts which the nations of the world rejected are from the category that one is able to sense are wrong (just as are all seven of the Noachide Laws). However, those who are bound by the Noachide Laws are not commanded against desiring to do them. What Hashem offered them was an entirely new level of observance, a qualitative change of themselves as human beings. It is this which they rejected. It is a quantum leap from being commanded not to do something, to being commanded to revile the very act itself.

1.13:3  2.Gur Arye 13:26  3.158:1

Question of The Week

Rashi cites the interpretation of Rav Moshe Hadarshan that the eight strings of the tzitzis symbolize the eight days from when Bnei Yisroel left Mitzrayim until they sang the shira at the splitting of the Red Sea. However, in Parshas Beshalach, Rashi notes that Bnei Yisroel sang the shira on the seventh day after the Exodus. How do we reconcile this apparent contradiction?