Rabbi Elazar of Modi'in said: One who profanes the kodoshim (sacred things), who degrades the Festivals, who humiliates his friend in public, who abrogates the covenant of our father Abraham, or who interprets the Torah contrary to its true intent—although he may possess Torah knowledge and good deeds, he has no share in the World to Come.

Ethics of the Fathers, 3:11


What is it about these five transgressions that distinguish them from other violations of the Torah? At first glance, Rabbi Elazar's list seems a collection of unrelated offenses, pertaining to things as diverse as the Temple service, the Jewish calendar, interpersonal relations, circumcision and Torah study. Yet obviously there is something about these things that places them in a category of their own—something that makes their transgression so grave an offense against the very essence and purpose of our lives.

Preserver or Creator

A person may view the commandments of the Torah as a set of instructions from on high. G‑d created the world (so goes this line on thinking) and in His Torah He defined its boundaries and parameters. He established what is permitted and what is forbidden, and distinguished the holy from the mundane. The role of man is to preserve these borders: to avoid the profane and safeguard the sanctity of that which is holy and G‑dly in the world.

But to see our life's mission in these terms is miss the point entirely. G‑d gave us the Torah in order to enable us to become His "partners in creation" - that we build upon and extend His work. That we take our presently imperfect world - a world dichotomized by holiness and mundanity - and transform it, in its entirety, into a harmonious expression of its Creator's goodness and perfection.

This is the "World to Come" that results from our implementation of the mitzvos in today's "Present World." If the Present World consists both of the material-dominated workweek and the spiritual sanctity of Shabbos, the World to Come will be "a day that is wholly and eternally Shabbos." If the Present World both reveals and obscures its Creator, the World to Come represents a reality in which every entity and element is suffused with an awareness of the Divine.

If the Present World is the world as G‑d created it, divided between the hallowed and the profane, the World to Come is the product of man's contribution to the partnership, the product of his efforts to sublimate the ordinary and sanctify the mundane.

Five Examples

The five transgressions singled out by Rabbi Elazar as detrimental to a person's realizing his share in the World to Come all indicate, each in its own way, the same misguided approach to the essence and function of the mitzvos. They describe an individual who, "although he may possess Torah knowledge and good deeds," sees them merely as preservers of a cosmic status quo rather than as the tool for human achievement and partnership in G‑d's creation.

A. One who profanes the kodoshim:

Kodoshim is the halachic term for an animal that has been designated as an offering to G‑d. From the moment the owner expresses his intention to offer it, this animal is kodosh, consecrated to the Almighty. It is now a severe prohibition to make use of it for any purpose or to inflict a wound on it; it must be slaughtered in the courtyard of the Holy Temple and eaten under conditions of ritual purity.

The principle of the "consecrated animal" is a prime example of how the Torah empowers man to sanctify his "ordinary" possessions by devoting them to the service of the Creator. Thus, one who violates the sanctity of kodoshim demonstrates a contempt for human ability to sanctify. In effect, he is saying: "Holy is what G‑d deems holy. But if Farmer Joe points his grubby finger at some calf, and states his intention to bring it as an offering, does this change anything? Is this animal now different from any other?"

B. Who degrades the Festivals:

If kodoshim exemplify man's ability to endow a physical object with sanctity, the Festivals offer him an opportunity to transform and sublimate the substance of time itself. For the Torah establishes that the Jewish calendar be set not by any predetermined cycle or system, but by the monthly "Sanctification of the Month" by the beth-din (court of law).

To set the new month, at least two witnesses must behold the new moon; the beth-din must cross-examine them and then officially proclaim the commencement of a new month. So it is human initiative and human actions that determine which day shall be Yom Kippur, which day Passover, etc. In fact, the Torah explicitly states that even if the beth-din erred or was misled, the holiness of the Festivals is nonetheless affected by their proclamation.

Again, one who sees Torah merely as the implementation of G‑d's instructions for daily living will inevitably fail to properly appreciate the sanctity of the Festivals. The holiness of Shabbos he can relate to: after all, G‑d Himself consecrated it from the very start—He created the world in six days and rested on the seventh, thereby making this cycle of six days of work and involvement followed by a day of sublimation and transcendence integral to the very nature of time. The timing of Festivals, however, is humanly determined, and subject to the shortcomings and vulnerabilities of all human products. One who belittles the human side to the "partnership" may view the Festivals as days devoted to special activities, designed to commemorate important historic events, because G‑d so commanded; yet to say that the nature of the day is more lofty than any other? What has transformed an ordinary Wednesday into a holy day—the finite and error-prone acts of men?

C. Who humiliates his friend in public:

Here, Rabbi Elazar addresses human relationships. For man is not only empowered to sanctify those elements of his environment that he involves in his service of G‑d, but also to create hallowed entities in the purely social and interpersonal areas of his life.

Obviously, it is forbidden to humiliate any individual, in any setting. But Rabbi Elazar refers specifically to one who humiliates his friend, in public, as one who rejects the process that creates the World to Come out of our present-day existence. A person who publicly humiliates his friend effectively says: "We created the friendship between us, so it has no more value than either of us cares to attribute to it. There is nothing 'sacred' about it. How can there be if it's of our own creation? If I am angry with you, I will not refrain from humiliating you in public—at this moment, you mean no more to me than does anyone in this crowd of strangers on the street. You say that I am `violating' our friendship? What is that supposed to mean? A `friendship' is not a thing—it is the relationship between two people. And now our relationship is such that I am angry at you and I wish to humiliate you!"

The mitzvos of the Torah are of two general types: those that govern the relationship "between man and G‑d" and those that apply "between man and man." Our mandate to transform and sanctify our existence is not confined to the "between man and G‑d" area of life; also "between man and man" we create realities that are holy and inviolable, and that are part of our "improvement" upon G‑d's creation.

D. Who abrogates the covenant of our father Abraham:

The first three examples deal with things whose ``sanctity'' is indeed initiated and created by man: the animal consecrated as an offering, the day imbued with holiness by act of beth-din, a friendship formed by two individuals.

But what of the mitzvos that are wholly ordained from above? Is our observance of them to be defined only in terms of obedience to the Divine will, or do they, too, include an element of creative input on our part?

Rabbi Elazar addresses this issue by referring to the mitzvah of circumcision as ``the covenant of our father Abraham.'' The use of this elaborate idiom for circumcision seems not only unnecessary but also problematic: G‑d commanded Abraham to circumcise himself; it is a covenant between G‑d and Israel, first established with Abraham but then re-initiated with each individual Jew. In fact, as Maimonides is careful to point out, "...everything that we avoid doing or that we do today, we do only because of G‑d's command to Moses at Sinai, not because of any communication by G‑d to earlier prophets... [For example,] we do not circumcise ourselves because our father Abraham circumcised himself and the members of his household, only because G‑d commanded us through Moses that we should circumcise as did Abraham...." And yet, at every Jewish circumcision, the infant's father recites the blessing: "Blessed are You, G‑d... Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to enter him into the covenant of our father Abraham."

We attribute the mitzvah of circumcision to Abraham in order to underscore the human element involved. Although the covenant is defined by Divine command, each Jewish infant enters it as a pioneering "Abraham," forging a bond with the Almighty that is uniquely and distinctly his own.

True, the mitzvah is a Divine institution, a command that expresses the desire of G‑d. True, the Torah commands ``Do not add to what I command you, neither shall you diminish from it,'' for how can man presume to rationalize, much less tamper with, the Divine will? At the same time, we know that the act of doing a mitzvah is a realization of our cosmic partnership with the Almighty. So we may, and must, involve our mortal selves in the deed: our finite comprehension of its significance, our subjective emotional response to it, our innovative ways of enhancing and beautifying the object and the experience of the mitzvah.

E. Who interprets the Torah contrary to its true intent:

The partnership which G‑d entered into with man includes not only the actual observance of the mitzvos but also the Torah itself, the process by which G‑d communicates His will to humanity.

Instead of simply presenting us with a set of instructions, G‑d chose to embody His wisdom and will in the Torah and to entrust the human mind with task of deducing the Divine laws and commandments it contains. The very notion seems incredible: how can the human intellect possibly fathom the Divine ``mind''? But the Torah itself proclaims that the ``Torah is not in heaven'' but has been given to man to study and comprehend. Consider the following incident related by Talmud:

Rabbi Eliezer and his colleagues were debating a point of Torah law. Rabbi Eliezer maintained that a certain type of oven was not susceptible to ritual impurity, while the others disagreed.

``On that day,'' the Talmud recounts, ``Rabbi Eliezer brought them all sorts of proofs, but they were rejected... Finally, he said to them: `If the law is as I say, may it be proven from Heaven!' There then issued a heavenly voice which proclaimed: `What do you want of Rabbi Eliezer---the law is as he says...'

``Rabbi Joshua stood on his feet and said: ` ``The Torah is not in Heaven!'' '

[What does this mean? Explained Rabbi Jeremiah: We take no notice of Heavenly voices, since You, G‑d, have already, at Sinai, written in the Torah to `follow the majority’]'

``Rabbi Nathan met Elijah the Prophet and asked him: `What did G‑d do at that moment?' [Elijah] replied: `He smiled and said: ``You have triumphed over Me, My children, You have triumphed.'' ' ''

For so G‑d desired: that when man applies his rational faculties to the words and principles of Torah, the resultant conclusions are nothing less than His own will!

Hand in hand with so awesome a privilege comes the tremendous responsibility to be faithful to the terms of this partnership. One who departs from the Torah's guidelines on how to interpret and apply it, regarding it as some nebulous theory to be formed and deformed at will, obviously has no appreciation of what Torah truly is: a marriage of minds between man and G‑d.