Written by: Rabbi Avrohom S. Moller
The Sefer HaChinuch (Book of Initiation) was written during the 14th century by an anonymous author. Many attribute it to Rabbi Ahron HaLevi of Barcelona, a student of the Ramban-Nachmonides. The sefer was written to enumerate the 613 mitzvos of the Torah following the order of the parshiyot. Each mitzvah is listed and then the following format is used to explicate it. First, a general description is given, followed by some technical background for each mitzvah, then the author proposes a rationale for the mitzvah, and concludes with the conditions in which the mitzvah is observed.
Parshas Bo has a large cluster of mitvos dealing with the rituals of Pesach. The various details of the Korban Pesach, the prohibition of chametz, the mitzva of matzah, etc. The Sefer HaChinuch discusses each of these in turn. After explaining several prohibitions relating to the Korban Pesach such as not eating it unless it is properly roasted, not to take the meat out of the room where it is being eaten, and not to break the bones to extract the marrow, the author gives an uncharacteristically long comment about the common rationale of these prohibitions. He explains that the purpose of eating the Korban Pesach on the Seder night is so that we relive the feeling of freedom which we experienced as we left Egypt. This feeling is enhanced by high living and good cuisine. If one does not prepare the meat well, runs around with it while he eats it, breaks the bones to scrape out the marrow, he is not acting royally and like a free person. Rather, he is acting like a desperate starving beggar and that is not the ambience that we are trying to create with this ceremony.
The Chinuch then turns its attention to a general philosophy about practical mitzvos. If one thinks that commemorating the great gift of freedom that Hashem gave us when we left Egypt is best accomplished by meditation and focusing on the theme instead of physical and mechanical acts, he is mistaken. If we follow the rituals and mitzvos of the Torah, it will have a far greater impact on our attitudes than simply focusing and thinking about the Torah values. “The heart follows the physical actions,” declares the Sefer HaChinuch, telling us that this is an important principle in leading a Jewish life. If a person has wonderful attitudes and ideas of love of Hashem, but he does not fulfill the practical dictates of the Torah, he is falling very short and will eventually lose his positive beliefs as well. Hashem created the practical mitzvos because he understands the human condition much better than we do, and this is the path to success that he has laid out for us.
Ritual is a central part of our Torah. While we are taught hundreds of mitzvos with myriads of technical details on how to fulfill them, we are also warned not to become ritualistic, following the mechanical requirements and forgetting the attitudes which these mitzvos are supposed to instill in us. Even so, we must remain balanced and still have a strong affinity to the practical fulfillment of mitzvos, “בכל פרטיה ודקדוקיה – with all of the attending details and nuances,” to be considered true servants of Hashem. This way we will reap the complete benefits of the mitzvos and become transformed into Torah true personalities.
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