On being a commanded Jew
The conclusion of this week’s parashah, Shelach Lecha, consists of the verses of Torah (Numbers 15:37-41) that have become known in our liturgy as the third paragraph of the Shema. There we are taught that we should look at the tzitzit, or the fringes on our garments, in order to remember the mitzvot, or commandments of God, and do them. It is clear that we Jews are an ancient people and that the mitzvot as learned from the Torah provide the structure for our way of life. Less clear is what exactly are the mitzvot and how they operate as time unfolds.
For over a thousand years Jews have spoken of the “613 mitzvot”, but nowhere in the Torah or the Mishnah does it mention how many mitzvot there are. Rather, one passage in the Talmud, in the name of the third century sage Rabbi Simlai, teaches that “613 mitzvot were communicated to Moses, 365 negative (you shall not) corresponding to the number of days in the solar year and 248 positive (you shall) corresponding to the number of bones in the body.” (TB Makkot 24a). In this Talmudic passage Rabbi Simlai’s position is then countered by seven other opinions. One, quoting the prophet Micah 6:8, asserts there are just three principles – “to pursue justice, act with loving-kindness and walk humbly with God.” Another, referring to Amos 5:4 asserts there is just one – “to seek God that you might live.” In a sense, the Talmudic passage is playing with mnemonic devices to query what it means to be a Jew in service to God, for nowhere in the Talmud is there a list of the 613 mitzvot. The opinions of the various voices in this passage suggest the pursuit of justice and living with faith are central to the Jew, Rabbi Simlai being understood to say that every day each of us should serve God with every bone of our body.
It took hundreds of years from Talmudic times before the rabbis of the Middle Ages began writing “Books of Mitzvot” in which they enumerated the 613 mitzvot, that of Maimonides now being the most well known and widely authoritative count. However, other medieval sages wrote other collections, and while there is general agreement about the categories of mitzvot and their content, there is lack of agreement as to what exactly are the 613.
Further, nearly half of the 613 according to those counts cannot be done because of the destruction of the Temple. So the litmus test of “613 mitzvot” may not be as important as accepting in general the principle that a Jew is to live a life of obligation as opposed to entitlement.
Meanwhile, Shelach Lecha suggests in the opening story of the scouts sent to spy out the Promised Land that even when we agree on what we see, we will necessarily disagree on how to interpret those observations. While all twelve agree that the land flows with milk and honey, ten of the twelve report that “we must have looked like grasshoppers to the inhabitants.” Caleb and Joshua disagree. This story highlights that “facts” are always subject to interpretation, and examples of subjectivity and interpretation abound in law, science, art and life.
Interpretation of Torah is no different, and that is why its study is so rich and rewarding. The Torah calls for capital punishment, an eye for an eye, and the execution of the rebellious child. Our earliest sages recognized that sometimes the literal words of Torah could end up not being in the service of God and needing to be re-framed: a court that issued a death penalty twice in seventy years was a murderous court, it was “the value of an eye for the loss of an eye”, and there was no such thing as a rebellious son in the first place. Other laws could be expansively applied – such as the avoidance of cruelty to animals leading to a prohibition against factory farming of them. In rabbinic tradition, Torah and mitzvot must be part of a system “whose ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” (Proverbs 3:17).
Judaism, in all its varieties, teaches that the mitzvot provide the basis for a Jew’s living a life toward God. Consistent themes over the thousands of years are that we should pursue justice, act with compassion, and be humble before the awesome mystery of God – the incomparable One existing beyond all time and space. Shelach Lecha teaches that all interpretation is subjective, suggesting that we should consider “looking at the tzitzit and remembering the mitzvot of God” in a more inclusive and less judgmental light.