There are many arenas which are vulnerable to the bigotry of low expectations. Not the least of these is our minimizing the opportunities and expectations the Torah provides for us.
I’ve had long-standing conversations over many years with friends, students and family as to whether being a “good Jew” is the same as or even equivalent to being a “good person”. Although speaking to fellow Jews I can definitively answer “no”, I’m not sure of the related questions for people of other faiths. Perhaps being a good Christian or a good Catholic or a good Muslim or a good Buddhist or a good Hindu is the same as being a “good person”–whatever knowledge I have of those faiths is both external and superficial. But my experience with Torah, perhaps still not that far from superficial, is, at least, from the inside.
In one, very narrow, and only technical sense, Torah can be said to equal the 613 mitzvot. Related to the word הוראות (horaot), instructions, תורה Torah is the “instruction manual”, step-by-step, for a Jew to fully connect himself, via the 613-dimensioned mitzva system, to The Creator in His Infinite Light, אור אין סוף (Ohr Eyn Sof) to the greatest degree possible for a physical, flesh-and-blood being. This is not only, or even primarily, for his own pleasure and enjoyment, but rather to bring this Ohr Eyn Sof into the material world of Creation, animating, refining and perfecting it through his specific and intentional actions (this is also what we traditionally refer to as Tikkun Olam).
With this in mind, Rabbi Shalom Noah Berezovsky (1911-2000), the Slonimer Rebbe, begins his book of commentary on the Torah, Nesivos Shalom, quoting Rashi’s very first comment on Bereishit, the very first parsha of the Torah. “Rabbi Yitzchok says that the Torah (in it’s narrow definition of the 613 mitzvot) should have started with (the very first mitzva given to the Jewish people, the phrase) (החודש הזה לכם (שמות יב:א (HaChodesh HaZeh l’Chem), “This month will be for you…”(Shemot 12:1)”. In other words, it should have begun with the Jewish People’s first mitzva, in the middle of Parshat Bo, the third parsha already into the Book of Shemot, rather that with Bereishit, the story of Creation!
While Rashi goes on with a very specific reason why the Torah does, in fact, begin with Bereishit, the Slonimer teaches us a different, equally important lesson why there is so much preface to the actual mitzvot. The Middot, the seven personality traits associated with the lower seven Sefirot (Kabbalistic description of how the Ohr Eyn Sof, Infinite Light, descends into the material world until it becomes restricted and reduced enough for us, as human beings, to interact with it) are first introduced and developed in the personalities of the אבות (Avot) Patriarchs and other early personalities we meet in these first chapters(1).
Although we say that, somehow (through their individual deep spiritual connections with God) the Avot, our biblical ancestors, observed all the mitzvot even before they were given in the Torah, our interest in their lives is learning, from their modeling, basic human morality. Quantized, as it were, into the seven Noahide Mitzvot (see note (1) in “Defining Tikkun Olam“), the Avot teach us how to become good people, no small achievement in itself. However, it is only when we’ve been taught by all of these spiritual masters and ethical exemplars (flaws and all as they, too, struggle to, themselves, become good people) that we are finally prepared for our unique next step, that of becoming good Jews as well, via the Mitzvot of the Torah.
Thus, if we limit our vision as to not only our potential, but also our obligation as Jews to be kind, compassionate, just, loving and balanced, we’re depriving ourselves and the world-at-large from what we not only can be, but must be. By all means, strive to achieve these goals as well, but don’t spend too long patting yourself on the back for the accomplishment. Rather, that’s like bragging about our good grades in kindergarten while we should be working on our post-graduate degrees!
No, none of us will probably ever score a perfect 100 in mitzvah performance. Neither will we be perfect in our basic humanity. But to try for anything less (in either) is an insult to ourselves and to countless generations of our fellow Jews and an arrogant selfishness towards the rest of humanity and the universe.
(1)Avraham, for example, both introduces and models חסד (Chesed) unbounded love, Yitzchak, Gevurah, strength/structure/organization/awe, Ya’akov, Tiferet, balance/beauty/equanimity/wholeness, Yosef, Yesod, righteousness/connectivity, Moshe, Netzach, patience/permanence/stability Aharon, Hod, splendor/method and B’nei Yisrael, the Jewish People, Malchut, the culmination into real life (also represented, of course, by King David, who doesn’t appear in the Five Books at all (although a Midrash has Adam donating seventy of his own years in order to give David life at all, so in one sense, David does inhabit Sefer Bereishit!))