Rabbi Dror Brama
Former Rosh Kollel in London
Our parsha includes a lengthy discussion of isurei ha’arayot (forbidden and illicit relations). The parsha then concludes with an ostensibly difficult verse:
“Safeguard My charge to avoid committing those abominable behaviors that were committed before you.” (Vayikra 18:30)
We know that we must perform mitzvot and avoid aveirot. The above context implies that we are entrusted with performing mitzvot. However, the precise meaning of the phrase “safeguard My charge” is unclear. If the “charge” is the performance of mitzvot, why must we safeguard this charge?
Chazal provided us with a brief response to this question. Yet since their answer implies a radical departure from today’s standard practice, we will first provide an essential introduction to Chazal’s explanation.
At first glance, it would seem that the Torah’s commandments and the principle of bechira chofshit (free choice) combine in such a way that performing mitzvot becomes one’s own personal matter. Hashem commanded, and a person can decide whether or not to obey the commandment. This choice is thus a private matter – between an individual and Hashem. Living amidst other nations and religions has caused many people to understand Judaism in precisely this manner. In fact, even in modern, democratic Israeli discourse, we frequently hear a similar contention from our secular brothers: “We don’t prevent you from observing your religious lifestyle. Please don’t stop us from enjoying our secular lifestyle. Live and let live.”
With respect to the words “safeguard My charge”, Chazal (Sifra, ibid) said:
“’Safeguard My charge’ to instruct the court in this matter.”
Similarly, the Gemara (BT Yevamot 21) explains:
“’Safeguard My charge’ – establish a guard for my charge.”
The Rishonim were split whether this is to be considered as a positive mitzvah – which is then included in the count of 613 – or whether this is a general, all-encompassing mitzvah. In any event, everyone agrees that this mitzvah is specifically addressed to the leaders of each generation – the chachamim (literally, sages) and the courts – who are enjoined to somehow safeguard the charge. In other words, performance of the mitzvot must not be merely relegated to the sphere of personal choice. Rather, the leaders must proactively ensure that mitzvot are performed.
We are thus introduced to two concepts that may seem quite foreign to our modern sensibilities. First of all, we are told, people bear responsibility. Not only is each person responsible for himself, but the courts are also responsible for us all. Secondly, the court is not to be a passive judge, who sits and waits for cases. Instead, the court must be a creative institution which employs legislation and rulings to guarantee that the nation performs and observes the mitzvot.
Yet, the question remains. Why cannot individuals be permitted to be responsible for themselves?
The answer is spelled out a few verses earlier, at the conclusion of the discussion of arayot:
“And do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination. And do not lie with any animal to be made impure through it, and a woman shall not stand before an animal for mating; it is a perversion. Do not become impure through any of these, because through all of these the nations that I expel before you became impure. The Land became impure, and I remembered its iniquity upon it; and the Land disgorged its inhabitants. But you shall safeguard My statutes and My laws, and do not commit any of these abominations – the native and the proselyte who dwells among you. Because the people of the Land who are before you committed all these abominations, and the Land became impure. Do not let the Land disgorge you for having made it impure as it disgorged the nation which is before you.” (Vayikra 18: 22-28)
What can be more intimate and personal than the issue of arayot? These are things that are done secretly, privately, and, frequently, with the participants’ mutual consent. Nevertheless, the Torah informs us that these iniquities cause the Land to disgorge its inhabitants. It occurred in the past, and if Bnei Yisrael do not safeguard the charge, it is likely to happen again.
According to the Torah’s approach, even a personal sin committed inside one’s own home is a national, existential matter. We were chosen to inhabit this Land as an am kadosh (a holy nation), and if we are unable to fulfill this basic criterion, we will be unable to maintain our hold over the Land.
Therefore, the Torah commanded us to safeguard the charge. We have a personal, public and national obligation to create a society and an environment where Avodat Hashem will be guarded with kedushah (holiness) and to thus merit having the Shechinah descend upon the Land.