Why do we need commandments? Ever consider that? Why do we need to have a Torah? Why, in fact, is even religion necessary? Why should we even believe in G-d?
On the surface, these questions are sacrilegious and border on heresy. Here we are in a sanctuary of G-d praying to him as we do every day and now there are questions as to why. Stop and think for a minute and as we’ll see, these philosophical questions will lead us to a potentially disturbing realization.
As a species, we need rules and they need to be enforced. Most people take that for granted. We all live in society and we have to have standards in order to get along and be able to fulfill ourselves without having to worry about devastation or attack.
The potentially disturbing realization is that humans are not intrinsically good. At first blush, this comment is very cynical, negative and misanthropic. But true. People will skirt rules, lie, cheat, steal and even kill to get want they want. That’s why Torah is not just necessary, but critical. In fact, in the Tractate of Shabbat in the Talmud, one sage lamented that without Torah, Hebrews would have destroyed the world.
Many people will be indignant at this consideration. They will state emphatically that humankind is intrinsically good. Hate, they say, is learned, and they will show you a picture of two kids—one white, one black—who cut their hair exactly alike so their teacher wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
So where did all the bigots come from? Their parents? Were they born innocent and then get brainwashed by bigoted parents? What happened when they became adolescents and gained, according to a famous psychologist, creative thought processes? They couldn’t figure it out themselves that skin color is an extremely small part of a person’s physiology and has no effect on any other part of their cognitive functioning?
Look around the world. Some egotistical hypocrite schemes his or her way to top of a political heap and enslaves their people. In fact, that’s not good enough for them and they go after other peoples. Never do they consider, hmmm, I love a challenge, let’s turn this country into a veritable Utopia.
When you look at the commandments, they seem to just make sense. Don’t kill? Yes, it’s pretty final and violent what right do you have to take a life? Don’t steal? Same concept, and besides, it’s not your stuff. Mother and father? They raised you, be grateful. Adultery? You made a promise, stick to it. And so on.
OK, so we humans need rules. We’re not perfect and we’re all works in progress. G-d created us not perfect so he can proud of us that we made something of ourselves and grew to be good people.
Consider our natural tendencies. Most of us wake up in the morning, still tired despite how much sleep we got and craving that cup of coffee, the first of many. Things happen in life, like the car doesn’t start, we’re out of our favorite cereal and we forgot to get more, we fight traffic, have to go through an imperfect system to get anything and all this puts us in a bad mood. And now we have to go out in the world and be polite to people when all we really want to do is go back to bed. For a week.
That’s why we need to have commandments. So we can be good. So that as we go through life and get stressed dealing with imperfections, we remember what it’s all about.
Sure, other people may not be so virtuous or honorable, but we can be. Many people are influenced by other people’s actions. Someone is mean to you, you’re mean to them back.
What the commandments do is show us how to behave when we don’t want to. The praying and tzitzis and mezuzot are reminders. We study Torah each week to drill it into our heads. Prophets and Writings are the commentary and the Talmud answers just about any question we would have on how to apply those principles.
We study Torah so that acting rightly becomes second nature. We study so that it becomes instinct between our first and second cups of coffee in the morning. We study so that if just happen to take over a country, we know how to behave.