Many people think that a mitzvah is a good deed. Jewish tradition however understands this term to mean a God given commandment, a sacred responsibility. According to the tradition there are 613 mitzvot gleaned from the Torah.
There is the familiar, “Be fruitful and multiply,” and the obscure, “You shall not wear a mixture of wool and linen.” There are ethical mitzvot and ritual. There are positive and negative. There are laws that are dependent on the ancient sacrificial cult and therefore no longer applicable and there are other laws that are only incumbent upon those living in the land of Israel.
Genesis gives rise to only three commandments. Exodus provides us with the familiar commandments to observe Passover and Shabbat as well as the demand that we not oppress the stranger. Leviticus gives us the laws of keeping kosher and those surrounding the incomprehensible sacrifice of animals. Numbers commands us to wear a tallis and Deuteronomy to give tzedakah and recite the Shema.
Deuteronomy provides us with the most commandments, 200 of the 613. In this week’s Torah portion we find 72, far more than any other portion. There are many interesting commands detailed here. “If you chance upon a bird’s nest with fledglings or eggs and the mother sitting over them, do not take the mother with her young. If you see your fellow’s donkey or ox fallen on the road, do not ignore it. When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow.”
Most interesting is the following: “When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, so that you do not bring blood guilt on your house if anyone should fall from it.” On Long Island we don’t have too many homes with rooftop parapets. And so I wondered, to what can this apply? I began thinking about fences. But here on Long Island we build fences for privacy rather than protection. We build them to keep the neighbors out rather than to protect our neighbors from harm.
The Biblical ethos is instead that each of us is responsible for our neighbors. The parapet is akin to pool fences. We have an obligation to protect our neighbors. In our culture we remain fixated on the rights of privacy and shielding our lives from our neighbors. The Bible insists that we must not remain indifferent to our neighbors.
All of the Torah is built on the idea that we are responsible for others. It is not constructed around our rights and privileges but rather around our duties and obligations, most especially to our neighbors.
The required list may no longer be 613 items long but the point is the same. Our neighbors are not to be ignored. The fences we build should not be about keeping our lives to ourselves. They must instead be about our responsibility to others.
That is the essence of the mitzvot.