Most of us want to be “good Jews,” but are not always sure just what that entails. Does it mean doing mitzvot? Certainly it would be wonderful to heap good deed upon good deed, always avoiding what is prohibited.
But every reflective Jew would have to admit that, for one thing, there are just so many commandments, no one could ever do them all. And for another thing, it is not always clear that performing reams of commandments would add up to a coherent ethical or spiritual mission. Is the point of our religion simply conforming to the law? Shouldn’t our behaviors refine our characters?
Our Talmudic Sages reflected on this problem, in a homily that invokes this week’s wonderful Haftara, from the prophet Micah. In tractate Makkot 23b-24a, the Gemara reports – as everyone knows – that there are 613 commandments in the Torah. But then it goes on to say that this was too much for most people to follow, so King David telescoped all those mitzvot into 11 ethical commitments, as expressed in Psalm 15, such as always telling the truth, not slandering and not taking bribes.
Even this was too much for people, so the prophet Isaiah is said to have further reduced the commandments to a similar list of six ethical commitments. Later – and here is the famous concluding verse from this week’s Haftara – Micah 6.8 reduces them to three: “Human being, it has been told to you what is good and what God demands of you. Just this: Doing justice, loving kindness and walking humbly with your God.” [Later in the Talmudic passage, the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Havakuk are said to concentrate the commandments into even briefer aphorisms.]
Micah’s list is a masterful distillation of what it means to be a religious person. Yes, good Jews are called upon to do many mitzvot. But through all our diverse rituals and traditions and prohibitions and exhortations, the Torah ultimately should help us develop into humble, modest people who strive to build a more just world, and who treat our fellow human beings with fairness and tender kindness. What more could God ask of us?