What is the purpose of the commandments? One explanation in the teachings of the Sages is: to refine people. The Commandments of the Torah are intended to have a civilizing effect on the Jewish people.

Chassidic teachings explain that there are two aspects to our inner personality. One is our Divine Soul, a spiritual "spark" within us which is described as a portion of G‑dliness. This comes into the world with a special task, and the Torah and its commandments are the instructions of how to fulfill that task.

In order to understand the nature of this task, let us consider the second feature of our inner world: the Animal Soul. This is the force within us which wants to live, and to eat, and to possess... Guided by the Torah, we have to make the attempt to purify and refine the Animal Soul. This means, in effect, that we have to try to control and even transform the basic characteristics of our human (and sometimes all too human) nature.

If a person observes the directives of the Torah, he or she experiences a program of training and improvement of character.

For example, let us consider the law of Kashrut (eating kosher). This week's Torah reading includes the law that we should separate milk and meat.1 Quite rightly, this and other aspects of Kashrut are often thought of as developing the virtue of self-control, and also of not taking anything for granted. "Is it kosher?" is the question one asks before taking a mouthful. Of, course, the effect of such a law is far broader than simply our attitude to food. We gradually learn to ask about everything in life: "Is it kosher?"

Kashrut is a law "between the person and G‑d." By contrast, the majority of the teachings in our parshah are termed laws "between a person and their fellow," and they focus on questions concerning human relationships.

Here too, and perhaps even more obviously, we see that the commandments have an intended effect. For example:

The Torah tells us: "If you meet your enemy's ox or donkey going astray, you shall surely return it to him. If you see the donkey of a person you hate crouching under its burden you shall not avoid the situation but help him release it."2

Maimonides points out in his great work, Mishneh Torah, that the Torah also commands us to help a friend. "You shall not see your brother's donkey or ox fallen down by the way and hide yourself from them; you shall surely help him lift them up again."3

Now if the Torah demands of us that we help our friends and also our enemies, what should we do if we meet both our enemy and friend together and both have an animal that is overburdened and needs help? Says Maimonides: One should first help the animal of one's enemy! The reason is, he says, in order to curb our evil inclination.4 It is more of an achievement in curbing our nature to help an enemy than to help a friend. Hence, helping an enemy comes first.

Following the guidance of the Torah helps us transform our own character, creating a genuine form of civilization. The next step, which G‑d will implement, is a kind of chain reaction of inner transformation, which ultimately will affect the entire world.