In this parasha we read of the central and most important event in our history, which marks the climax of the entire process of Yetziat Mitzrayim: the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. It is at this point that Am Yisrael transforms from a shapeless entity, a group of slaves without any essence or destiny, subject to fate and the kindness of others, into a nation with a destiny and purpose. A moment before this great event, Hashem speaks to Moshe and conveys to him the crux of Am Yisrael’s essence and being: “And now, if you will heed My voice and observe My covenant, you shall be for Me a treasured nation from among all the nations – for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be for Me a kingdom of priests and a sacred people” (Shemot 19:5-6). From this moment, the shapeless collective becomes a nation; and not just a nation, but rather a treasured nation, a sacred kingdom, a nation with power and vision. It is off this background that we ought to perceive the underlying purpose of the Ten Commandments. They constitute the foundations of the entire structure, they compose the unique mold of Am Yisrael, and they express in concrete form the concept of a “kingdom of priests and a sacred people.”
A straightforward reading of the Ten Commandments reveals a peculiar phenomenon. These commandments include the fundamentals of faith, Shabbat, and the basic guidelines concerning interpersonal relationships (mainly that which is forbidden). They omit, however, one critical component: the service of God, as it found expression then in the Mishkan and sacrifices and from time immemorial in prayer, and a Jew’s relationship to the Almighty in general. Seemingly, a Jew is required merely to believe in God and maintain an ethical lifestyle, but no more. In the basic declaration of the fundamentals of Judaism, avodat Hashem (service of God) is missing; it is not expressed at all.
“Thus says Hashem Tzeva-ot, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings onto your other sacrifices and eat the meat! For I never spoke to your forefathers or commanded them on the day I freed them from the land of Egypt with regard to burnt offerings or other sacrifices.” (Yirmiyahu 7:21-22)
In his charge against the people, the prophet emphasizes this phenomenon in clear, blatant fashion: Hashem did not command us at the time of Yetziat Mitzrayim to offer sacrifices to Him. He commanded us with regard to proper ethics – this is our destiny and duty in the world. All the sacrifices, therefore, are, seemingly, superfluous and worthless. The nation neglected its primary responsibility and involved itself instead in unimportant matters.
It seems clear and beyond doubt, however, that the sacrifices, and the entire dimension of avodat Hashem in Judaism, is an important and central component, as evidenced by the considerable space the Torah affords to it. The entire final section of Sefer Shemot and virtually all of Sefer Vayikra, as well as many other places in the Torah, deal with sacrifices, their detailed laws and importance. Nevertheless, the prophet teaches the nation a critical lesson: it is important to take note of the sequence in which Hashem issues His commands to Am Yisrael. Upon the people’s departure from Egypt, at the initial encounter with Hashem, no mention is made of the area of avodat Hashem. It surfaces only later. Therefore, the sacrifices have no place when moral corruption pervades our society. Otherwise, however, they undoubtedly have a place, and even constitute a central pillar, an additional level, a higher dimension above the ethical dimension. In the “kingdom of priests,” the ethical dimension occupies the ground floor, and it therefore earns clear and explicit mention in the Ten Commandments. From there we proceed to avodat Hashem, the dimension of sanctity, which also comprises an important and meaningful value within Judaism.
This message of the prophet is meant for all generations, and was therefore written in the Tanach. It has many crucial ramifications regarding the way in which we perceive the concept of religious life, and particularly the role of morals and ethics within religious life. Even today, when we assess the status of Am Yisrael generally and individuals in particular, this outlook must form the basis of our assessment. When there is ethical corruption in the State of Israel, the Jewish State, or when a mitzva-observant individual, who meticulously observes every detail of halacha, does not concern himself first and foremost with moral perfection, the prophet’s cry echoes once again. A religious lifestyle, Jewish life, begins with proper morals and ethics; this is the basis of all of our avodat Hashem and the unique quality of Am Yisrael.