“The Jewish Method of Achieving Moral Perfection”
(Updated and revised from Acharei Mot 5763-2003)

by, Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, parashat Acharei Mot, we read one of the profound 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: אֲנִי, השׁם אֱ־לֹקֵיכֶם, I, am the L-rd, 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: וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם, אֲנִי השׁם , And you shall observe My decrees and My laws which a human being shall carry out and shall live, I am the L-rd.

How challenging it is to live a sanctified life, a life of dignity and a life of meaning! The Al-mighty knew this. He was well aware that the blandishments of Egypt would always twinkle in the mind’s eye of the Israelites who left that country, and that the temptations of Canaan will constantly be there to challenge the Israelites who entered the land.

Indeed, the Midrash (cited in Sefer haParashiot by Eliyahu Kitov, Acharei Mot pp. 46-49) graphically describes the drunken ribaldry and Bacchanalia that the Hebrew slaves in Egypt experienced, encouraged by their Egyptian masters. Despite being slaves, they were regularly invited to participate in the blood fests 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 stifle the temptations to participate in the sexual orgies of Canaan? The Al-mighty knew this and understood. And that is why in Leviticus 18:5, G-d, in effect, tells the Jewish people: It cannot happen by osmosis, it cannot happen through the study of philosophy or theology. The only way the Jewish people can withstand the provocative forces of evil and the seductive temptation of lust is through education and training–rigorous exercise and conditioning.

How can a person live an ethical and moral life in a world which is working desperately to distance them from good? It seems impossible! But Judaism has a most effective methodology which is the centerpiece of its revolutionary educational philosophy. Simply stated, Jewish education 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 isolated guru in the Himalayas who, with his ten adherents, are living an exalted ethical and moral life. But how does one nurture a nation of hundreds of thousands to live an exemplar moral existence? What is the secret of the Jewish educational philosophy? 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 that makes that possible are the rituals of Judaism.

Although the rituals and ritualistic training are often derided by others as Judaism’s excessive compulsive obsession with minutia and details, the proper practice of rituals are extraordinarily effective. The practice of dressing properly, of eating appropriately, of giving charity to the poor and the proper conduct of intimate life–these are the essence of moral character building. By simply pronouncing a blessing before eating, or putting a nickel, a dime, or a quarter into a charity box on a regular basis, these practices lead to ethical and moral living. This is exactly what the Torah means when it proclaims, Leviticus 18:5: וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת מִשְׁפָּטַי, and you shall observe my decrees and my laws, וָחַי בָּהֶם, and you shall live by them!

The best kept secret of Jewish life is the unprecedented effectiveness of Jewish rituals–the best kept secret of human moral education. Society can not only live by them, but flourish through them.

May you be blessed.

Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day, is observed this year on Wednesday night, April 27th, and all-day Thursday, April 28, 2022.