The People of Israel have just received the Aseret Hadibrot (the Ten Commandments) of G-d at Sinai. Immediately, Moshe gives the people of Israel an additional total of 53 mitzvot (commandments). This series of laws includes issues related to slavery, lost objects, capital court cases, monetary damages, responsibilities of watchmen of assorted property, witchcraft, how to treat converts and strangers, Shabbat, festival holidays, kashrut, idolatry, sabbatical year for the land, courts and bribery.
What is so important about these laws, that they follow immediately the Revelation at Sinai? Rashi, in his commentary to Pirkei Avot (“Ethics of the Fathers”), says that they are at the “height of the universe.” Rabbenu Yona maintains, “one must be most careful with the laws for they are an essential principal in establishing any relationship with God.”
In the context of Pirkei Avot, they are providing guidance, methods and details of how to maximally develop one’s soul. In fact, the tractate of Pirkei Avot is the developmental guide to achieving prophecy, even if it is not marketed that way overtly. Understanding how the laws may affect one’s soul could perhaps shed some light on this issue.
Imagine finding something in your synagogue one morning. Can you keep it or are you obligated to return this lost item? When does ownership of an object begin and when does it cease? Where does the concept of ownership come from to begin with? Is it a man-made social convention?
Accepting the concept of Torah law implies that I recognize a system of right and wrong; my soul can comprehend this system, and this system has objective reality that my mind can grasp. A significant teaching of Torah is that G-d is the creator of the physical and of the meta-physical universe; the same G-d who created the laws of physics, chemistry, biology and psychology is also the source of morality, ethics and all of the rest of the Torah’s laws and mitzvot.
While man may be a central player on this planet, the universe does not revolve around us. We do not create the rules in the universe; we live by them. We need a bit of humility to accept the idea that we are accountable to a system of objective justice.
Conduct that follows Torah and mitzvot affects our souls directly by helping us achieve an understanding of our place and the place of others in the universe. The closer we come to perceiving our reality and ultimately understanding our relationship to the source of reality — i.e. to G-d — the more effectively can we implement the teachings of mitzvot and Torah to improve our souls and the world that G-d created.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)