Yitro 5778

D'var Torah | Exodus

The giving of the Torah is a logical paradox. If the Torah consists of a body of truths know only to God who gives it to human beings, then by definition the Torah is beyond human comprehension and thus unintelligible! And if the Torah consists of a body of truths that human beings can discover themselves, then the giving of the Torah by God is unnecessary. Either way, the giving of the Torah is a mystery.


Maimonides escapes the paradox by asserting that the laws of the Torah could have been intuited by human beings who were up to the task, but only over a prolonged period of time. Since God required a more immediate change in human conduct, He gave the Torah to the Jewish people who would serve as the custodians of His instructions.


In arguing for both the comprehensibility and rationality of the Torah, Maimonides was actually following the teaching of the great third century Palestinian authority, Rabbi Yohanan, who concluded that: “if the Torah had not been given us, we could have learned modesty from the cat, honesty from the ant, chastity from the dove, and good manners from the rooster” (Eruvin 10b). Each of these animals, Rabbi Yohanan assumed, had certain obvious character traits that could be discerned empirically by human beings and adopted for better living. However, this raises a different problem.


Human beings may learn the wrong lessons by the same process of observation. It is conceivable that people would learn manners from the pig, licentiousness from the dog, pride from the rooster, and timidity from the dove. Left on their own, human beings could model their behavior on the worst aspects of animal behavior. Such was the thinking of Thomas Hobbes whose sixteenth century apology for absolute monarchy was based on the assumption that without an all-powerful totalitarian government life would be “a war of all against all.”


The Torah is indeed sensible. It is not beyond human comprehension. Much of the Torah could have been discovered by the wise and perceptive. Yet on the real chance that human beings may have miscalculated, God gives the Torah to preempt the possibility.




Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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