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eJudaism: 46 - Rabbi Simlai, Micah, Rabbi Leon Morris, Shavuot (Part 6)

06/01/2022 07:00:00 AM


Michael Greenfield

Even for the Sages, 613 commandments was a LOT of mitzvot to make sense of, which is why they spend many of the approximately two and a half million words of the Talmud trying to both elucidate mitzvot and also boil them down to some kind of essence. On page 23b of tractate Makkot of the Talmud, Rabbi Simlai splits the list in two: there were 613 mitzvot stated to Moses in the Torah, consisting of 365 prohibitions corresponding to the number of days in the solar year, and 248 positive mitzvot corresponding to the number of parts in a person's body.

What can we learn from this? That on every day of the year, we have an inclination to do something we ought not to do. That's just part of the human experience, part of being imperfect beings. We'll never outgrow or outrun that inclination, but we can - with every bone and muscle and fiber of our body - push ourselves to do good in the world instead.

As a people, we have these two oddly competing desires to speak endlessly and to always want to cut to the chase (Exhibit A: The Talmud), and so what follows on 23b is a series of many, but increasingly shorter, lists of mitzvot upon which all the others are based. It's the Cliffs Notes version of the 613, though not surprisingly, each subsequent list is explored in great detail. It begins with King David's list which, in Psalm 15, offers eleven mitzvot which would be sufficient to guide you in every action. It's a good list - definitely worth a read. The prophet Isaiah got it done in six and then, overachiever that he was, also did it in two.

But it's the prophet Micah who I think does it most poetically in his list of three: It has been told you, O mortal, what is good, and what the Eternal requires of you. Only this: to do justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God. Some of you may have your own list, and no doubt many of you will prefer some version of the Golden Rule, which is what Rabbi Hillel offered when asked to recite the entire Torah while standing on one foot: What is hateful to you, do not do to others; all the rest is commentary, now go and learn.

Hillel is the Talmud's rock star, and that might be him at his best, but the thing I think we ought to notice across all of these lists is the simplicity of the message behind the message. In a beautiful teaching for Shavuot this week that equated a person with a Torah, Rabbi Leon Morris of Pardes in Jerusalem shared this insight from Rashi: The human being is likened to a Torah scroll. The Torah is called a lamp, "For the mitzvah is a lamp, and Torah is a light." And the soul is also called a lamp, "The lamp of the Eternal is the soul of a human being."

When we do a mitzvah, we release a spark of light into the world. By lighting those sparks, we create moments of redemption. Shavuot is our annual reminder to brighten our soul with the light that Torah sparks within us.

Fri, June 21 2024 15 Sivan 5784