When I was growing up, I often heard people argue that the laws of kashrut were an example of the intellectual superiority of the Jewish people, our ancestors’ system to protect us from swine-borne trichinosis and food poisoning from shellfish. Of course, there was an unspoken corollary — now that we have the Department of Agriculture and the FDA to guarantee food safety, we can dispense with this ancient health code.
However, Rabbi Isaac Arama (Spain, 15th century) wrote that “the dietary laws are not, as some have asserted, motivated by therapeutic considerations. God forbid! Were that so, the Torah would be denigrated to the status of a minor medical treatise and worse than that. Apart from that, the alleged ill effects could be treated with various drugs…. In that event the prohibition would no longer apply and the Torah would be superfluous.”
Quite simply, we are commanded to keep kosher “because God said so.”
Still, for many people, “God said so” falls short as a motivation for the performance of mitzvot. And so we have a long, long tradition of ta’amei hamitzvot, reasons for the commandments, and they’re as varied as the ages and authors that have created them. The Torah contains such and such mitzva to make us more compassionate, increase our gratitude to God, enforce separation between Jews and non-Jews, and so on. As long as we remember that none of these is the real reason, this too is Torah.
This week we read Ha’azinu, the prophetic poem Moses is commanded to teach the people before his death. It contrasts God’s goodness to Israel and Israel’s rebellion and describes how God will punish the people for breaking the covenant. Finally, it recounts God’s mercy, that God will save His people from their enemies.
As Moses charges the people to take the words of the poem to heart, he says, “ki lo davar reik hu mikem,” “for this is not an empty thing for you.” However, the word mikem, translated here as “for you,” literally means “from you.” Therefore, the Yerushalmi in Peah teaches, “For this is not an empty thing — and if it is empty, it is your fault” — mikem, from you — “Why? Because you do not labor in the Torah.”
The great Israeli Torah teacher Nehama Leibowitz wrote, “The lesson contained in these concluding verses of the Torah is the importance of each detail. There is nothing superfluous in the Torah…. The seemingly most insignificant and prosaic detail hidden in the folds of a story is of equal importance to its philosophy and fundamental laws. All goes under the name of ‘Torah.’ If we can find no significance in a particular detail, if it is ‘an empty thing,’ then the fault is ours and due to our lack of understanding, our failure to labor to discover the meaning.”
This is why we read the entire Torah each year, the lists of animal sacrifices as well as the compelling stories of Bereishit, the endless details of building the Mishkan as well as the noble words of inspiration and ethics. It is all Torah and we are meant to learn from all of it.
And if something seems empty or boring, well, next year we’ll just have to try a little harder.