Torah or Mitzvot?

Judaism is far more than a religion. It is undoubtedly also a national identity. Time and time again throughout the Torah Moshe references not the emergence of a creed or doctrine but rather the emergence of a people. In fact the Talmud (Shabbat 88b) notes that the Torah, the creed and doctrine of Judaism, was created prior to the creation of the world. The stories recorded in the Torah therefore chronicle the birth of our nation. All this comes to the fore in this week’s parsha:

Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God!  (Devarim 26:9)

The focus of this verse is our peoplehood. At this specific juncture in time the Jews have now formally become a nation. But what makes us a people? What lies at the very core of our national identity? This question seems to be a debate between Rashi and the Bechor Shor.

Commenting on the above verses, Rashi writes:

Today you have become the people — On each day it should appear to you as though it were “today” that you have entered the covenant with him.

This statement seems to be drawn from the Talmud (Berachot 63b) which states as follows:

And Rabbi Yehuda again began to speak in honor of Torah and taught: “Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God” (Devarim 27:9). But was the Torah given to Israel on that day? But in fact that day was the end of the forty years! Rather, it comes to teach you that every day the Torah is as dear to those who learn it, as it was on the day it was given on Mount Sinai.

What emerges from all of this is that the nationhood of the Jewish people was generated by the giving of the Torah. The covenant to which Rashi refers to is the covenant of Sinai, but more specifically it is the commitment to the study of Torah. The Talmud focuses on the study of Torah, as stated, “dear to those who learn it.” (See Rashi, Avodah Zarah 3a where the connection between the study of Torah and the covenant ofthe Jewish people is further expressed.)

For Rashi, the day that the Jewish people accepted the Torah, and began learning Torah, is the day that we became a people.

The Bechor Shor no doubt agrees on the primacy of Torah study. Nonetheless, that is not his understanding of the focus of this verse in Devarim 26:9. The focus is mitzvot. In fact the Torah specifically links the observance of the commandments to the covenant. The very next verse reads:

Heed the Lord your God and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day. (Devarim 27:10)

The connection to the observance of the commandments is clear. For the Bechor Shor, this is what lies at the foundation of Jewish peoplehood: doing the mitzvot.

The study of Torah and the performance of mitzvot are two priorities that are connected to one another, and neither can exist without the other. But which one is the bedrock of Jewish peoplehood? In a world of Jewish partisanship and dissension, what will unite our people together as a people? While Rashi may argue that increased study of Torah is the key, perhaps the Bechor Shor would say that the pursuit of shared mitzvah performance is more critical.

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