First published on the Rabbis for Human Rights – North America web site.
“And it shall come to pass, if you shall give heed diligently to the voice of the Lord your God, to observe and to do all His commandments which I command you this day, that the Lord your God will set you on high above all nations of the earth.” (Deuteronomy 28:1)
What does it mean to keep the commandments God commands us “this day?” At this point in the Torah’s narrative, we are nearly 40 after the revelation at Sinai, when God first gave us the commandments.
There are a variety of ways the rabbis have understood this phrase. The Talmud (Avodah Zara) says that the expression “I command you this day” comes to tell us to DO the commandment TODAY. Every day is a “today” on which we are instructed to obey the commandments.
Rashi, the medieval commentator par excellence, says that the emphasis on “today” means that on each day the commandments should be new in your eyes, AS IF you were commanded that day. The Pesikta of Rav Cahana says you should treat the Torah like a new announcement every day, one that you run to read, not like some old announcement that’s been on the bulletin board for weeks already.
I want to suggest a different reading. Even though the Torah is eternal, what God commands us today is different than what God commanded us at the time of the giving of the Torah over 3,000 years ago.
It’s not that the Torah has changed: rather, the times have changed and the challenges we face are different. The modern world generates all sorts of ethical, moral, and halachic questions that the rabbis of 2,000 years ago could never have imagined.
When we look at the contentious issues of today – the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, human trafficking, demonstrations in Israel for “social justice” – how do we know what God commands this day?
The values of the Jewish tradition – values that have been set down, studied, and refined, over a period of more than 3,000 years – guide our actions today. From studying the Torah, Talmud, and teachings of the later rabbis we can derive principles that can be applied to issues of today.
Our tradition places great value on the importance of treating others well. Just a few examples: saving lives pushes aside almost all other commandments; the way we treat other people is an extension of how we treat God, as we are all created in the Divine image; the Torah commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself.”
I’m a strong supporter of Rabbis for Human Rights because it is the leading organization concerned with putting our Jewish values into practice in the midst of some of the most difficult and controversial issues of our day.
With a deep knowledge of the tradition, and a passion for human rights and social justice, we can do what is “right and good in the eyes of the Lord” on this day.