Weekly Torah Commentary — Bo January 18, 2013

In this week’s Torah reading, we are presented with the final plagues and in their context, with a unique expression. Speaking of Pharaoh, the text says, “…for God hardened his heart.” 10:1-2
It is written in other places that people hardened their hearts but Pharaoh is the only person in all of Tanach of whom it is written that “God hardened his heart.” Why?

Historically Pharaoh was guilty of much wrongdoing: he was steeped in idolatry, guilty of murder, of licentiousness, etc., etc. Torah is very clear about God’s view of idolatry, as it is about murder and immorality. Yet we find that Pharaoh [and through him all of Egypt] was not singled out for the punishment of the plagues for his idolatry but for how he treated his slaves.

Rabbi Reuven Hammer in his recently released book, THE TORAH REVOLUTION, makes this statement: God is concerned with ethics and morality and judges human beings not capriciously and not on the basis of their ritual conduct, but on the basis of their treatment of one another. This simple statement is not so simple; it has huge implications. Rabbi Hammer goes on to say, “Ritual is secondary to right conduct.”

Think about that for a moment. Ritual is part of every religion, not just Judaism. Rituals are important, and are not to be denigrated or dismissed, absolutely not! However, when our rituals become more important than our behavior toward others, ritual has lost its true meaning.

Psalm 24: 3-4 reminds us: “Who can ascend the mountain of the L-rd? What can stand in His holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart…”

Rituals are given to us as vehicles to express our heart’s devotion to Hashem and His Torah. As such, the value of their performance is inextricably derived from the love, respect and devotion to God that prompts their performance. Our rituals were never intended to be mindless, rote actions done simply out of habit with no inner significance.

We in no way discount the value of ritual when it is performed from a heart of love towards Hashem.
But we need to be reminded on a regular basis that everything that happened in the Temple had one purpose only: to bring the worshipper closer to God. That purpose remains and is just as relevant today for our destiny as Jews is to be living sanctuaries of Hashem’s presence in this world. Therefore every ritual done in “the temple called you” is for the same purpose.

All of that being said, I return to the overriding Torah principle which Rabbi Hammer highlighted.
God’s demand on human beings is ethical living; relating justly and compassionately towards others, as He is towards us. “Be holy as I am holy..” Dev. 10: 17-19 In other words, ‘reflect who I am to those around you.’ That, my friends, is not primarily accomplished through ritual, but through our daily behavior towards those around us.

The vast majority of mitzvot contained in the Torah are moral imperatives. The minority deal with rituals which Hashem gave us for the purpose described above: to help us connect with Him.

In Tune with Torah this week = to read and meditate on Psalm 15 and internalize for ourselves this message: Rituals are secondary to right conduct toward our fellow man. Shabbat Shalom

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