WHO SAYS MITZVOT ARE GOOD DEEDS?
The common understanding of mitzvah as good deed skews the way the term is used in Torah – for the word has to do with actions we are commanded either to do or not to do. Individuals these days, accustomed to developing self-expression, esteem and autonomy find it difficult to imagine there can be constraints on that growth potential. The concept of mitzvah suggests that the community and the tradition (understood as the voice of God speaking through the Torah) do limit our autonomy. Indeed, this limitation is one of the fundamental concepts in developing a just and law-based society.
Mitzvot are at the heart of the Jewish legal system (they tell us the what to do and not do; Halakha is the development of the”how” to apply the mitzvot). Nowhere in the Torah does it state that there are 613 mitzvot, that concept developed over the first millennia after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. By the Middle Ages, lists of those 613 mitzvot were being compiled by various rabbis – and while not in 100% agreement, there was consensus on about 580 mitzvot. Today, the list developed by Maimonides (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon of the 12th century) has been accepted as authoritative by the Jewish community; according to his count 72 of the 613 mitzvot, the highest concentration, are found in this week’s parasha.
Studying the mitzvot of this week’s parasha, one quickly realizes that mitzvot are not necessarily good deeds. They cover a vast array of concepts, from marriage and divorce, tort and criminal law, to laws of war. The concluding mitzvah of this week’s teaching requires us to “blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.” The basis of the command is the cruel war of terror waged by Amalek against us.
The question is whether to fulfill this mitzvah one must exterminate Amalek – not one person, but an entire people. There are indications in the Bible that this is how the mitzvah is to be applied. Today, after a century of genocide, many look for new interpretations of these teachings, a new Halakha of applying certain mitzvot. We yet have a desire to see the good within the mitzvah. Along these lines, one of our congregants suggests that the command to blot out the memory from under heaven can mean that we must work to eliminate not Amalek but the concept of genocide from human consciousness. It is along these lines of thinking that there is hope to keep the concept of “the 613 mitzvot” as one that unites, not divides, the Jewish people.