The Jewish People receive a series of laws concerning social justice. Topics include: Proper treatment of Jewish servants; a husband's obligations to his wife; penalties for hitting people and for cursing parents, judges and leaders; financial responsibilities for damaging people or their property, either by oneself or by one's animate or inanimate property, or by pitfalls that one created; payments for theft; not returning an object that one accepted responsibility to guard; the right to self-defense of a person being robbed.
Other topics include: Prohibitions against seduction; witchcraft, bestiality and sacrifices to idols. The Torah warns us to treat the convert, widow and orphan with dignity, and to avoid lying. Usury is forbidden and the rights over collateral are limited. Payment of obligations to the Temple should not be delayed, and the Jewish People must be holy, even concerning food. The Torah teaches the proper conduct for judges in court proceedings. The commandments of Shabbat and the Sabbatical year are outlined. Three times a year — Pesach, Shavuot and Succot — we are to come to the Temple. The Torah concludes this listing of laws with a law of kashrut — not to mix milk and meat.
G-d promises that He will lead the Jewish People to the Land of Israel, helping them conquer its inhabitants, and tells them that by fulfilling His commandments they will bring blessings to their nation. The people promise to do and listen to everything that G-d says. Moshe writes the Book of the Covenant, and reads it to the people. Moshe ascends the mountain to remain there for 40 days in order to receive the two Tablets of the Covenant.
“We will do and we will obey.” (24:7)
The Midrash tells us that before the Jewish People accepted the Torah, G-d offered it to all the other nations one by one and they rejected it. He offered it to the nation of Esav. Esav asked what was in it. G-d said “You mustn’t murder.” "We live by our sword", was their reply. G-d offered it to Yishmael. They too asked G-d what was in it. “Don’t commit adultery.” So Yishmael also turned it down; it wasn’t congruent with their lifestyle. Finally G-d offered the Torah to the Jewish People and they said, “We’ll do and we’ll hear.”
There’s something about this Midrash that is hard to understand. All those nations who rejected the Torah now have laws against murder, adultery and many other of the Torah’s societal laws. If those very nations incorporated these statutes into their legal systems, why was the Torah so difficult for them to accept? Seemingly, the Torah required no more of them than that to which they subsequently committed themselves.
The Talmud tells us that when we embarrass someone it’s as though we killed him. This is evidenced by the blood draining from his face. The Talmud also tells us that staring at a woman with lustful intent is in itself an act of gross indecency.
Behind the surface of each commandment, there is a subtlety and depth that demands a great deal of a person. For the Torah is not just a dry legal system — it’s the handbook of holiness in this world.
That’s what these nations couldn’t accept. When they realized that the Torah connoted infinitely more than its surface appearance, they turned it down.
- Source: Rabbi Yitzchak Ruderman, heard from Rabbi Reuven Buckler. May this Torah thought bring merit to the soul of Yaakov Yisrael ben Reuven Buckler, zatzal, who passed away tragically this week.