There he was, shipwrecked, alone on an island. He surveyed the few articles washed ashore with him: a few tools, a few necessities, and one book. He took the book and put it in a special place, for he realized that this was to be his sole source of outside intellectual stimulation.

The island had ample supplies of water, fruit, and animals, and he was able to survive. But man is interested in more than survival. What did he do to grow? He read his book. And reread it, and reread it over and over again. Seven years passed until a passing ship spotted him. By that time, he had so thoroughly studied the text that not only did he know the book, he knew the author. He understood which dimensions of the author’s personality each of the characters represented and why their destinies were intertwined.

The analogy refersto the book of books, the Torah. The Torah is not merely a book. It is a tool that enables us to know G‑d who composed it. Through that knowledge of G‑d, our entire conception of existence changes. Our relations with our fellow men also become richer and more fulfilling. For as we study the Torah, our conceptual processes become aligned with G‑d’s and we view others as He desires us to.

Parshas Yisro

“I am a good person at heart. I want to help others; that’s what’s important. Let me concentrate on doing good for my fellow man. When I’m finished with that, I’ll worry about doing what’s good for G‑d.”

This is not a new argument. On the contrary, we hear it surfacing many times throughout our history. Yet, from the earliest times, Judaism has not accepted this approach. On Mount Sinai, when G‑d gave us the Ten Commandments, He divided them up into two groups: The first four commandments focus on our relationship with G‑d: to believe in Him, not to worship idols, not to take His name in vain, to keep the Shabbos. The remaining six speak about our relations with our fellow man: honoring your father and mother, not killing, not stealing, and not committing adultery, not bearing false testimony, and not to covet.

The two groups are given together and the commandments between man and G‑d come first. Why? Because on our own, we can’t be sure we will always be good people. We need an objective standard governing our conduct. A person can have the best intentions and yet when it comes to his actual conduct, he may harm others severely.

How could that possibly happen? Because “love covers all blemishes,” and self-love is the most powerful form of love there is. Because of a person’s preoccupation with himself, what he likes, and what he thinks is right, he may lose sight of what is happening to another person. Even though he is harming another person, he might think that he is doing good.

A little bit more than a generation ago, this thesis might have been contested on the battlegrounds of logic. But today, we are all witness to what happens when the need for a G‑dly standard is ignored. In the early 1900s, the paragon of civilization, the master of science, culture, philosophy and ethics, was Germany, and as a nation she pointed to the success of man’s efforts to better himself.

And yet this nation perpetrated the most hideous crimes and atrocities in history — and all in the name of humanity’s advancement. Moreover, it was not only the rabble in the street that supported these deeds. By and large, the champions of science and culture did not stand up against the Nazi regime. Indeed, the overwhelming majority collaborated with it.

Left to his own devices, man may not perceive the motivation for his actions, or their consequences. That’s why the Torah gives us objective standards of justice and good. A person should uphold them, not because he thinks they’re valuable or beneficial, but because they are G‑d’s law, immutable and unchangeable.

This perspective also protects us from the other extreme: individuals who claim to be religious, but have no conception of dealing fairly with their fellow man. When ethics are understood as G‑d’s law, such people will not be able to continue their double standard. They can’t hide behind the cloak of holiness while they act dishonestly. For, on the contrary, the Torah leads us not only to spiritual development and connection to G‑d, but also to growth as people and advanced interpersonal relationships.

Looking to the Horizon

When discussing the coming of Mashiach, Maimonides writes: “This is the main thrust of the matter. This Torah, with its laws and statutes, is everlasting. We may neither add to them, nor detract from them.”

On one hand, Maimonides’ words are intended to contrast Judaism’s concept of Mashiach’s contributions from that of other faiths. This is obvious from the continuation of his text — censored from the standard printed versions, but recently published — which states: “Whoever adds [to the mitzvos] or detracts from them, or misinterprets the Torah, implying that the mitzvos are not to be understood literally, is surely a heretic.”

On the other hand, there is a deeper truth involved. The giving of the Torah represents a turning point in the world’s spiritual history: G‑d revealed Himself to man and gave him a code of law. Since that law is G‑dly, it — like G‑d — does not change.

That’s why we don’t expect Mashiach to change the Torah for us or reveal new laws. Since the Torah is G‑d’s truth, there is nothing that can be done to improve on it.

Nevertheless, the Torah is infinite and unbounded as is G‑d Himself. Although the Torah will not be changed, in the era of the Redemption, new dimensions of Torah will be revealed that will eclipse the Torah teachings of the present age. For at present only a limited glimmer of the Torah’s essence is revealed, and in the era of the Redemption, we will appreciate the Torah as it truly is.