“The Jewish Method of Achieving Moral Perfection”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this coming week’s parasha, parashat Acharei Mot, we read one of the resounding exhortations of the Al-mighty to the people of Israel.

G-d tells Moses to speak to the children of Israel and to say to them (Leviticus 18:2): “Ah’nee Hashem Eh’lo’kay’chem,” I am the Lord, your G-d. He tells the people not to perform the practices of the land of Egypt from which they have departed or adopt the customs of the land of Canaan into which they are entering, but rather to carry out G-d’s laws and safeguard G-d’s decrees. The exhortation concludes (Leviticus 18:5): “Ooh’sh’martem et choo’ko’tai v’et mish’pah’tai ah’sher ya’ah’seh oh’tam ha’ah’dam vah’chai bahem, ah’nee Hashem,” And you shall observe My decrees and My laws which a human being shall carry out and shall live, I am the Lord.

How challenging it is to live a sanctified life, a life of dignity and a life of meaning! The Al-mighty knew this. The blandishments of Egypt would always remain in the mind’s eye of the Israelites who left that country, and the temptations of Canaan would constantly be there to challenge the Israelites who entered the land. The Midrash graphically describes the drunken ribaldry and bacchanalia that the slaves in Egypt experienced with their masters. Despite being slaves they were invited to participate in the bloodfests of the gladiators that took place in the Egyptian stadiums. How can the serenity of Shabbat outshine those temptations? How can the meaningfulness of learning Torah override the temptations to participate in the sexual orgies of Canaan? The Al-mighty knew this and understood. That is why in the above cited verse, Leviticus 18:5, G-d, in effect, tells the Jewish people: It cannot happen by osmosis, it cannot happen through philosophy or theology. The only way the Jewish people will succeed in their struggle to withstand the provocative forces of evil and the seductive temptations of lust is through training–rigorous exercise and conditioning.

How does one live an ethical and moral life in a world which is working desperately to distance us from good? It seems impossible! But Judaism has a powerful antidote which has been incorporated into its very essence. Simply stated, Judaism’s educational methodology has proven to be the most effective means of educating large numbers of people over long periods of time to ethical and moral living. There may be some guru in the Himalayas who, together with his ten adherents, are living an exalted ethical and moral life. But how does one nurture an entire nation to live an exemplary existence? What is the secret of Jewish education? Ethical and moral training. It is simply not enough to say, “I feel like an ethical person in my heart!” It is not enough to scream out to the heavens and declare oneself a moral person. The bottom line is that ethics and morality are achieved through skill training, just like all other skills, and the secret formula for effective training is the rituals of Judaism.

Although the rituals and ritualistic training are often derided as a Jewish obsession with minutia and details, the proper practice of rituals are extraordinarily effective. How one dons and wears one’s clothes, how one eats one’s meals, how one gives charity to the poor, how one conducts one’s intimate life is the essence of moral character building. By simply pronouncing a blessing before one eats, or putting a nickel, a dime or a quarter into a charity box on a regular basis, these are the practices that lead one to an ethical and moral life. (Leviticus 18:5) “Ooh’sh’mar’tem et choo’ko’tai v’et mish’pah’tai,” and you shall observe my decrees and my laws, “v’chai bah’hem,” and you shall live by them!

The best kept secret of Jewish life is the unprecedented effectiveness of Jewish rituals. In fact, it is the best kept secret of human education. A society based on the proper and meaningful practice of these rituals will not only live by them, but flourish beyond anything imaginable.

May you be blessed.