In tractate Makkot, the Talmud discusses the obligations of a Jew in performing the mitzvot, and the makeup of these mitzvot into 365 negative commandments and 245 positive ones. The Talmud then posits that King David reduced these commandments to just 11 essential requirements.
These 11 are delineated in Psalm 15. Most deal with moral and ethical issues, such as speaking the truth and refraining from slander and from doing evil against one’s neighbor. Ironically, the vast majority listed are those pertaining to our relationship with other people. The mitzvot that relate to our relationship with G-d are only hinted at within the text.
The Talmud continues that Isaiah the Prophet condensed these essential mitzvot even more – to only six moral and ethical requirements. Again, this list stresses the relationship between people, conspicuously omitting those mitzvot between man and G-d.
The Talmud then states that when the Prophet Micha came, he once again reduced these six to only three standards of behavior: “What does Hashem want from us? Only to do justice, love kindness, and go discreetly with your G-d.” The Talmud expounds that Isaiah reduced these obligations even further, to only two: “Guard justice and do righteousness.”
Though implicit in this text is the worship of G-d and our underlying relationship with Him, the main stress is on those areas which concern our relationship with others. It is as if an essential purpose of performing G-d-based commandments is to enhance our relationship with people. That is not to say that performing mitzvot is not important in and of itself. But it does direct us to the possible conclusion that if we only perform commandments that are G-d-related and we stop there, we are not achieving the ultimate purpose of living as a Jew.
Our Orthodox Jewish community faces serious challenges. Many believe that one need not show respect for the irreligious or the non-Jewish population. Often we tend to speak derogatorily against someone whom we feel does not meet up to our religious standards. We do this even though we know that being a Jew is defined as being someone who not only follows religious directives, but who also inculcates these principles in himself in order to enhance his interactions with others. I have seen religious people who pray fervently three times daily with a minyan, yet act unethically in their business practices and arrogantly in their dealings with non-Jews.
Who is to say what is more important? King David, Isaiah, and Micha all seem to state that a person with religious values but who is wanton in ethics is not following the example of what the Torah expects from us!
One can recognize a gadol, a leader of our people, in how that person respects and values all people. A gadol doesn’t judge or offer a disparaging word against people who are not religious, nor does he degrade a non-Jew. He knows that all people are the creation of G-d and by definition deserve respect and reverence – that each person has some worth and can contribute to our community something precious and valuable.
Our Sages describe Yiftach, one of our leaders in the time of the Judges, in a non-complimentary fashion; indeed, he was not a leader one would be proud of. Yet our Sages state that Yiftach in his generation was equal to the great Samuel in his time. Leaders come in many forms, yet each has something to offer and to leave to their generation, despite being imperfect in religious dedication or knowledge of Torah.
There are those who criticize leaders such as Theodore Herzl or David Ben-Gurion. They ask: How can we recognize a Jewish State that was formed by people who were not religious? Such a state is contrary to the dictates of the Torah and therefore its formation is meaningless. But the true leaders of our people, who comprehend the ways of our Creator, understand that G-d has many messengers – and a person who is irreligious can also be chosen to ultimately achieve G-d’s miraculous goals.
Who says that it is better to be a Jew who follows every dictum of the Torah but is unethical in his business practices? How do we know that a Jew who is not shomer Shabbat but is honest and forthright in his dealings with humankind is less virtuous than the religious Jew who is deceitful in his dealings with people? Didn’t King David and the Prophets Isaiah and Micha state that these relationships between people are essential? To live a life of Torah demands from us to appreciate all creations and to see the spirit of G-d in everyone.
It is only through respect and appreciation for all people that we will ultimately achieve our true mission to be a “light unto the nations.”
May that time hasten to come.