The task before us

The task before us

Seven days. That’s all that are left. In seven days, we will be standing in our synagogues to begin the daunting task of doing teshuvah.

In seven days, we will begin to examine our lives to discover the flaws in our characters and to determine how to correct those flaws in the year 5772.

It helps, of course, to know what it is that we are supposed to repent from. Here is the bottom-line: We must repent for violating the laws of God.

In other words, we must repent for failing to observe the mitzvot that God commanded us and that Moses wrote down for us in the Torah.

That is what the Torah portion tells us this week: “Listen to the voice of the Lord your God, to keep His commandments and His statutes which are written in this book of the Torah….”

This week, too, the Torah makes it clear that observing the commandments, that observing the mitzvot, is not as difficult as we would like to believe: “For this commandment which I command you this day, is not hidden from you, nor is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, that we may hear it, and do it?’ But the word is very near to you, in your mouth, and in your heart, that you may do it.”

What these verses mean should be obvious to all. The laws that are in the Torah are not beyond the capacity of human beings to observe.

If you make a good faith effort to follow the laws, that will do. You do not have to be a saint, or an angel. You simply have to do the best that you can.

This week’s Torah portion also makes clear that Moses wrote “the Torah.” It says so over and again.

“And Moses wrote this Torah, and delivered it to the priests the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel.”

What that actually means, “Moses wrote this Torah,” we do not know for certain, but from the context of this week’s parashah we can offer a suggestion: The Torah that Moses wrote is the record of the laws God spoke. In other words, the laws of the Torah are the laws God gave Moses and that Moses gave us.

Those laws are contained in this “Torah of Moses.”

Even though someone else, or maybe a dozen or a hundred dozen someone elses, may have added the narrative portions to the Torah, the laws in this Torah represent the legitimate and revealed word of God, as transmitted to us by Moses.

Thus, the laws we must repent for not observing are the laws of this Torah. It really is as simple as that.

Only, it is not that simple.

When we examine the “For the sins of” litany that we recite on Yom Kippur, what we do not see there are the ritual mitzvot. There is no “for the sin of” for not keeping kosher; for not keeping Shabbat; for not wearing tzitzit or tefilin.

Indeed, when we examine the mission of Israel, when we examine what it means to be a kingdom of priests and holy nation, we realize very quickly that it is not about observing ritual, but improving behavior. Specifically, it is about improving the behavior of the world; it is about tikkun olam, repairing the world.

That is our mission and it has nothing to do with ritual.

It is fairly easy, then, to dismiss the ritual commandments and say, “all I need to do is to be a good person and I will have fulfilled my obligations to God. All I need to do is act morally and ethically, and I will have fulfilled the words of this Torah.”

Well, “this Torah” says otherwise, and it says it in this week’s parashah. This week’s parashah makes clear that God expects us to observe the Torah, all of it. There is no granting here of the privilege to pick and choose.

Nowhere here can you find what was in the Torah that Moses gave the priests to place beside the ark. Elsewhere, we are told “this is the Torah of the sin-offering” and “this is the Torah of the heave-offering,” and so on. Here, the term “Torah” is unspecified, undefined. It simply says Moses gave them the Torah and that we are obligated to observe that Torah.

This also means there is no one law that is greater than another; no one obligation that outweighs another; no difference between one mitzvah and the next. All are equal; all must be observed.

We make a serious mistake when we confuse our mission for God with our obligations to God. Technically speaking, it is not our job “to be good and to do good”; it is not our job to be moral and ethical.

It is our job to observe the laws of the Torah, all of them, without exception. If we do that, we will be good and we will do good; we will be moral and ethical.

We will thus fulfill the task of teaching the world that there is a better way to live, but we will be doing it on God’s terms, not our own, and God’s terms are the only valid ones.

We need to consider this as we prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and the Ten Days of Repentance in between.

There is one “for the sin of” that does not appear in the list that should be there: For the sin we have committed before You by selective observance of Your mitzvot.

We are all of us guilty of that sin and all of us must atone for it. That’s what this week’s parashah tells us we must do: “And you shall return to the Lord your God, and shall obey His voice according to all that I command you this day.”