“ God’s intention in giving us the Torah… is not just performing particular actions that were commanded, but also to always observe and understand the divine lesson and spiritual insight hidden within them ”Rabbi Moshe Herrera
What follows below is my translation of a remarkable essay by Rabbi Moshe Herrera (1878-1958) from which the quote above is taken. Rabbi Herrera was one of the last great rabbinic figures of Salonica, Greece. In his uniquely erudite and compelling fashion he explores how our daily actions become the stage for the Torah’s eternal relevance. I hope you enjoy and are inspired by his words. (The original essay in Hebrew, along with my translation and lesson ideas for teaching its content, will be published in the Fall of 2019 in a curriculum booklet containing similar writings.)
The Eternal Nature of the Torah
The holy psalmist stated “the Torah of the Lord is perfect, it restores the soul” (Psalms 19). In saying “perfect” he means that it has no defect, from this it is understood that the Torah is eternal and not subject to deterioration, just as every perfect thing that is without blemish shall remain forever and never be annulled. One shall never find within it something which does not have benefit at any time. This is like what the Torah states “for it is not an empty thing for you” (Deuteronomy 32:47), meaning that in all times and places there will never be anything in the Torah that is empty and without benefit.
One might challenge that at first glance it seems as though many things in the Torah prove the opposite, such as the matter of the making of the tabernacle, all of its vessels, its raising up and taking down, all of the performance of the sacrifices and many other commandments of the Torah that are not in effect for all generations. In this time of the exile of the Jewish people from their land, does it not seem as though all of those matters mentioned are of no benefit to us? This is also a valid question concerning commandments for specific individuals like the laws of purity for the kohanim.
However, we must respond that in the commandments which God commanded for us to do there were intended both a universal and particular aspect. The particulars are indeed the specific actions mentioned in the Torah. These do not last forever but rather, fall subject to the changes of moment, time and place which pass over them.
Nevertheless, the universal aspect, which is the Divine purpose embedded within them, endures and lasts forever. It is this that remains eternally and is established for all times.
For example, there are the commandments of giving leket (fallen grain), shihaha (forgotten sheaves) and peah (the corner of the field) for the poor, the gifts to the kohanim and levi’im which depend upon the land and apply exclusively in the land of Israel, nowhere else. These, nevertheless, contain within them a universal and Divine purpose which will remain forever and is rooted in our hearts eternally. That purpose is the obligation upon us to continually give of our own bounty to our impoverished and unfortunate brethren, and to our utmost abilities provide for what they lack; to support Torah sages, teachers and instructors of the people that will guide them to revere God and follow in all of God’s positive characteristics just as the ancient kohanim and levi’im taught God’s laws to the house of Jacob, Torah to the people of Israel.
Since God’s intention in giving us the Torah, according to what we’ve said, is not just performing particular actions that were commanded, but also to always observe and understand the divine lesson and spiritual insight hidden within them, like the Torah itself states “and you shall observe the words of this covenant and do them that you might understand all that you do” (Deuteronomy 29:8), then the meaning of that verse must also be that the people should perform the particular commandments in a way that impresses the hidden, universal insight upon their hearts. They should do this in order to become able to actualize that insight at a different time by means of a different physical action that was not expressly found in the Torah.
Another example is that of “you shall surely help him” which is stated regarding an enemy’s donkey which is being weighed down by its load. There the Torah declares “When you see the donkey of your enemy weighed down by its load, you shall surely help him” (Exodus 23:5) and includes within it the purpose and divinely desired, universally applicable outcome that we learn to do good even to our antagonists and that our animosity toward them be forgotten in their moment of distress, that we help them and lift them up to the extent that we can.
The person who roots this quality in their heart and has this type of encounter will help their antagonist in any circumstance of this kind and through this fulfill the desire and will of God even if they do not actually see the ox or donkey of their fellow falling in the road.
The purpose of the sacrificial system is to continually humble the human heart before its Maker, to seek mercy and lay down their burden before God in the their moment of trial, just as it is written “the humble spirit is a sacrifice to God” (Psalms 51:19). This is also true of prayer which always accompanied sacrifices. Prayer itself is sacrifice performed by the heart as our sages taught, “were there sacrifices in Babylon? No, there was prayer” (Sifri ‘Ekev 5, Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 29b, these are sources also brought by Rashi in his commentary to Deuteronomy 11:13).
In this manner we can speak regarding all of the mitzvot, even those that appear to no longer be in effect. In all of these cases there remains for us always the purpose and insight embedded within them.
Based upon this we can understand what our sages taught, “The Patriarchs upheld the Torah in its entirety” (Kiddushin 82a, Tanna d’Bei Eliyahu Rabba 6) as well as “Jerusalem was only destroyed because they administered Torah law (i.e. and not its underlying purpose) (Bava Metzia 30b)