(First in a series of essays on 12 SEFARIM THAT TRANSFORMED JUDAISM.
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With all its anomalies and disjointed structure (the fact that it goes from historic narrative to legal lists and back again) and the seeming disconnect between the beginning of the text and the rest (see the Rashi on the first verse) ultimately we realize the point of the Torah was to provide a moral, ethical religious core around which the Jewish nation, descended from Avraham who rediscovered God, would be formed.
The Torah is based on the core principal of balance. ‘Measure for measure’ – midah keneged midah’ is the Torah’s driving force. People are punished or rewarded in accordance with their actions. Avraham, who follows God’s instructions, is promised the land of Canaan. Yitzhak & Rivkah who pray for a child are rewarded with twins, one whom Yitzhak favors and one whom Rivkah favors. Rachel, who says not having any sons is killing her, bears Yosef, and dies in childbirth when her second son, Binyamin, is born. God punishes the Egyptians for enslaving the Hebrew and punishes the Hebrews when they test Him. Of course, the biggest irony of the Torah narrative is that Moshe whose relationship with God is higher than any human can achieve is barred from entering Canaan because of an act he committed, while everyone else who survived the desert can enter. But the balance is still kept. He could pray on behalf of everyone else, but not on his own behalf. (And nobody, it seems, prayed for him either. )
All mitzvot have an aspect of balance attached to them. Moreover, there is even a balance between mitzvot that relate to God and mitzvot that relate to other people (not necessarily in number). The shared history and values are what unites us as a people with a common interest and destiny, so that when Yehoshua needs to send out spies, he doesn’t have to send 12 – one from each tribe – but 2 to represent the whole nation. This is essentially what the Torah’s transformative task is – to bring us all together. Despite its anomalies (or perhaps because of them) it is our core book. We read it. We study it. We argue it. Sometimes we run to touch it. Sometimes we run from it. But it’s always our center, informing each and all of us.
Midrash tells us that before He revealed Himself at Sinai to give His Torah to Yisrael’s children,God shopped around just to see if someone else might want it. Every nation to whom He offered it rejected it for one reason or another after asking what’s in it. Yisrael’s children not only accepted it, but accepted it without question (‘Na’aseh venishma’ – we will do and then we will listen). I suggest, on the one hand, they were so desperate they were ready to accept anything. But I also believe the inner truth of the Midrash is even more revealing.. Consider how other religions relate to the Torah. (See, for example, Christian &Islamic takes on ‘Eye for an eye’). Other beliefs refer to the Torah, but adapt it to their cultures. The Jewish people allowed themselves to be transformed by it.