The author of the Sefer Hachinuch, a medieval study of the 613 commandments, discusses in detail the various intricate laws of the Passover sacrifice enumerated in this week's Torah portion. Midway through the discussion, the author pauses to ask a simple and obvious question: what's the point of all of this? If the purpose of the Passover sacrifice is to remind us of God's liberation of Israel from Egypt, couldn't that goal be reached with just a few laws and obligations?
The author answers by introducing an idea for which he is famous: that the many actions that the Torah asks us to perform are designed to cultivate within us certain feelings and thoughts toward God and others, and that the abundance of commandments – fulfilled in the actions we take – serve only to hone our hearts and minds toward those feelings and thoughts.
The Sefer Hachinuch’s idea is a powerful and provocative reversal of the way we often operate: we usually take action as a result of what we feel. But are there also times when we ought to take action – such as service, activism or prayer – so that we can be brought to experience feelings that we ought to feel?
Rabbi Noam Friedman is the OU-JLIC Rabbi at Columbia/Barnard Hillel. (The Seif Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus is a program of the Orthodox Union in partnership with Hillel.)