Rabbi Berel Wein
The Torah presents us with great moral principles and a profoundly unique value system. These are meant to propel us through life and make us feel that we are members of a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. Yet, we are all aware that perhaps the most difficult challenge in life is translating our core beliefs and high moral aspirations into practical daily behavior.
In a world where there would be no desire for undue riches or the accumulation of vast property, it would be simple to understand that one should not steal, cheat, or covet. In the practical world that we live in, there exists the desire for acquisition of wealth and goods, power and influence, fame, and fortune, all built within our basic DNA structure.
Stealing, cheating, and coveting all require no specific legal definition to be of value in the practical world. And because of this element of human nature, there exist all the great moral values that are represented in the Ten Commandments, which should define our lives.
All sorts of questions arise as to what the true definition of theft is. How does advertising and persuasive sales techniques fit into the moral world that we are trying to construct and live in, and does this describe theft? What about stealing to be able to survive? And countless other questions that undoubtedly arise when we approach the problem of defining behavior that we wish to accompany our lofty moral goals.
All the laws that appear in this week’s Torah reading are discussed at length (and width) with precise analysis in the tradition of the Oral Law that governs Jewish life. It is in those large volumes of scholarly research and opinion that the practical flesh and sinews of Jewish law are draped upon the skeleton of the moral world that we hope to attain.
We live in world where mistakes happen, whether they be the products of negligence or pure happenstance. How are we to judge liability and responsibility in that massive gray area where most human behavior finds itself? The Oral Law is a continuing process that deals not only with an ox that gores a cow but also teaches us how to deal with issues in air travel and even ventures into space. Without clear definition of the original value system upon which the moral code of Judaism is based, human behavior can be seen as merely a collection of good intentions and human platitudes.
The study of the Oral Law, beginning with the books of the Talmud and continuing through the latest works of Jewish legal scholarship of today, become the necessary foundation to creating a just and moral society that we all endeavor to live in.
I have always maintained that when we proclaim ourselves to be the people of the book, that book is not necessarily the Written Torah itself, but, rather, it is the Talmud, which makes the Written Torah come alive, practical, relevant, and trustworthy throughout all generations.