With today's Torah portion, Aharei Mot, we begin one of the distinct law collections of the Torah -- the Holiness Code. This progression of chapters in the Book of Leviticus (Chapters 17-26) explain how the members of the Jewish People are to attain a level of holiness and integrity which will allow us to reach our maximum potential as a covenanted people and as individuals in the service of God.
At the very outset, such an enterprise provokes an important question. Do these laws and rules represent a goal in-and-of-themselves, or does their importance derive from some encompassing, extra-legal values that inform their pedagogy and provide the 'mitzvot' with direction and guidance? In short, do we observe the rules of the Torah simply because they are rules, or is the Torah authoritative because it directs us on how to attain a sacred and meaningful Jewish life?
One productive area to explore whether these different philosophical positions might reveal the traditional rabbinic position is in the case where a mitzvah that pertains to ritual conflicts with a health requirement. If the rules have ultimate importance as goals in themselves, then no health concern would override their proscriptions and requirements.
However, if the 'mitzvot' are meant as commanding because they mold a community of sacred seekers and direct them in their journeys, then we would expect a 'ritual mitzvah' to recede in the face of considerations of life and death, or even of health.
One verse from the beginning of the Holiness Code relates that, "You shall keep My laws and My rules, by which you shall live; I am the Lord." Those two Hebrew words, "va-chai bahem" (by which you shall live) reverberate through the ages as a thundering witness both to the central function of Torah, and to the nature of its centrality as a way toward a sacred goal, not as that goal itself.
In the Talmud, the Rabbis take up the question of whether a sick person should fast on Yom Kippur. Their answer, remarkable for its courage, is that one who is sick, and who should eat to maintain health, is forbidden to fast. For such a person, it becomes a 'mitzvah' to eat! Why? Because, in the words of the magisterial Rabbi Leo Baeck (Germany, 20th Century), "The Jew knows that the great commandment is to live."
Living itself is a 'mitzvah.' Without maintaining life, no other 'mitzvot' and no other holiness is possible. Therefore, the 'mitzvot' have context when recognized to be the essential aids along the path toward the sublime.
But they are not themselves the summit. Irreplaceable, yes. Even obligatory and sacred. But still, the 'mitzvot' are not identical to the goal; they are the means toward attaining the goal. Choosing not to rely simply on their own authority, the rabbis of the Talmud remark that the Torah itself tells us that the purpose of the 'mitzvot' is to help us to live, not to prevent or even to endanger human life. "You shall live by them," not die by them. And in that simple distinction, our tradition mediates a complex and dynamic balance.
Yes, the 'mitzvot' are commanded. Without them, we will be unable to find our way back to the Source of holiness and oneness in the world. Without them, we cannot hope to repair our characters, our people and our world. Yet, for all their tremendous value and their indispensability, the 'mitzvot' themselves are but steps along the path, lights to guide us in our walk. The goal is more than just a network of behavior, more than a pattern of study, deed and prayer. The goal is a sufficiently rich inner life, a sufficiently pulsating love of the Jewish People and all humanity, a sufficiently overwhelming responsibility for our planet and its denizens, that out of that rich spirituality, loyalty, love and connection will emerge that most precious of all Jewish commodities: a true sacred servant. Such a person -- open to the Divine, respectful of other seekers, yet true to the path of Judaism, able to learn from others and to share with all -- testifies through deed and through word to the oneness of the universe and the wisdom and the love of its Source. And that is surely living. 'Va-chai bahem.'