If you don’t follow the Torah, you have no moral basis.
You might argue that you don’t really need the Torah, because you have the right ideas already. You know it’s important not to kill, not to commit violence against another, not to steal.
But how long can you go through life relying on your own intuitive sense of right and wrong?
What is right and wrong?
To see this classic dilemma in action, look no further than the first book of the Torah, the book of Genesis. Genesis lays the groundwork for humanity’s moral code. The most fundamental lessons are shared through stories rather than injunctions, which serves to make the lessons more relatable and enduring.
One of these stories is particularly relevant for our era of subjective truth: the very first story we see in the book of Genesis, the classic tale of Adam and Eve.
Let’s briefly review the story. God created man, then created woman from man. He gave them a paradise, the Garden of Eden, and told them, “Eat everything in this garden. But don’t eat from the Tree of Knowledge.” It wasn’t such a monumental demand. Nevertheless, they couldn’t follow it.
It seems ludicrous that the man and the woman (only the man, Adam, had a name at this point), the first humans shaped by God’s own hand, who had such an obvious, tangible relationship with Him, could immediately disobey a command He himself verbalized. A simple one, at that.
The woman conversed with the snake and he told her if she were to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, she would become like the angels. Instead of listening to the word of God, she listened to her new friend and her own desires. “When the woman saw that the tree was good for eating and a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was desirable as a source of wisdom, she took of its fruit and ate” (Bereishit 3:6).
In purely objective terms, the tree did look good for eating, and it certainly would give wisdom. She didn’t eat from the tree because she wanted wisdom, she ate from the tree because wisdom was good. She only knew what was good; and knowing that wisdom was good, the tree therefore appeared good to her. So she accepted the snake’s manipulation as truth and followed his guidance. Whether she ignored or forgot God’s guidance, the point is that she didn’t follow God’s rules – which is the true source of objective truth.
The sages say that prior to eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the man and woman inherently saw everything through the lens of objective truth. Had they maintained this state, humanity would only know objective truth. After eating from the Tree of Knowledge, the man and woman viewed the world from a highly subjective lens. Humanity would subsequently view everything subjectively and constantly battle to distinguish between good and evil due to subjectivity getting in the way. Good versus evil has become based on feelings; something can seem good, but it is actually not.
What exactly was so wrong about eating from the Tree of Knowledge in the first place? The simple, most straightforward answer is that God commanded them not to. As soon as they transgressed His commandment, it created chaos. This is the archetype of all subsequent sins humans have committed. God gives a commandment, we disobey it, and in so doing, we create chaos.
The woman in Genesis committed a wrongdoing because her source of objective truth was incorrect and it overpowered her knowledge of God’s commandment. In the aftermath of the Tree of Knowledge, mankind has been swept up in his own subjective truth which distorts and discombobulates objective truth. Man’s feelings are overcoming any shred of God’s truth within him. The more humans give credence to their own feelings, the more they question and dismantle the tenets which have governed life and society at large for generations.
What happens when we dismantle the most rudimentary rules of life? When we undo basic precepts of the Torah – “male and female He created them,” (Genesis 1:27), or “be fertile and increase,” (Genesis 1:28) – then we undo the more complex ones as well. Any violation of the Torah’s precepts wreaks havoc upon the very foundations of society.
The first several chapters of Genesis illustrate the moral descent humanity experiences after rejecting God and His laws. “Surely, if you improve, there is uplift. But if you do not improve, sin crouches at the door; its desire is toward you, yet you can rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). The more often you open the door for sin, the more easily he can enter. When we break one fundamental rule, we can easily break another. And another. It’s not a slippery slope; it’s a steep drop off a cliff.
We see this sequence of events in Genesis. Fundamental rules given by God are broken, and before you know it, “The earth became corrupt before God; the earth was filled with lawlessness. When G-d saw how corrupt the earth was, for all flesh had corrupted its ways on earth…” (Genesis 6:11-12). Rashi cites the Talmud, Sanhedrin 57a:1, which interprets the meaning of the word “corrupt” to mean lewdness (znut) and idolatry (avodah zarah). Rashi also explains that the “lawlessness” (chamas), refers to robbery (gezel), and citing the Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 28:8, he says the meaning of “all flesh” is that even the animals were in disarray and mating with other species.
While our “lewdness,” which included sexual promiscuity of all types – incest, wasting of seed, etc. – disturbed the equilibrium of the universe, it was the “lawlessness” which sealed the decree against humanity. God then says, “The end of all flesh has come before me because the earth is filled with lawlessness because of them” (Genesis 6:13). While people did corrupt the basics of procreation, the tipping point, according to both Rashi and Ramban’s commentary on Bereishit 6:13, was when God saw humans indiscriminately stealing from one another, inflicting violence upon each other, and in general acting unjust toward their fellow man. This is after God had generously bestowed health and abundance upon humanity (Sforno on Genesis 6:13). While God was not at all pleased with the aforementioned lewdness and it certainly brought chaos to the world, the sealing of this decree – the flood – would come because of the senseless violence and injustice humans inflicted upon other humans. It was only in one man’s merit – Noah – that all of humanity wasn’t wiped out.
In short, if we do a, b, and c – lewdness, idol worship, and robbery – our outcome will be extinction. The Midrash, Bereishit Rabbah 26:5 states: “Wherever you find lewdness and idolatry, chaos (androlomussia) comes upon the world killing good and bad alike.” The disorder we created would actually cause our own annihilation. When we throw out the rule book and defy God’s law, we destroy the very foundations of society.
According to Rabbi Chaim Druckman, these three major sins humanity was guilty of leading up to the mabul, the flood, directly correspond to the three pillars upon which the world stands, as specified by Ethics of the Fathers, Chapter 1, Mishna 2: Torah, avodah (work), and gmilut chasadim (acts of kindness). The lewdness (znut) corresponds to the destruction of Torah; the Torah elevates us above the animals, giving us structure for what a proper relationship looks like between a man and a woman, while promiscuity reduces us to animals. The idol worship (avodah zarah) corresponds to the destruction of positive avodah, i.e. following the mitzvot. The lawlessness (chamas) is the antithesis of showing kindness to our fellow man, gmilut chasadim. By committing these three violations, we are actively destroying the three pillars upon which the world stands. And naturally, when you destroy the pillars upon which the world stands, the world topples and crashes.
It doesn’t take a sage to notice the myriad of ways in which these pillars are destroyed in the modern age, and it’s not hard to see all the same forces – lewdness and lawlessness – at work. And while we may not have idol worship of the same variety that we had in ancient, pre-flood days, we do worship something – ourselves.
Narcissism is the new religion of our times, and as soon as we become indoctrinated into this new religion, we dismiss the very basis of moral civilization. The mainstream narrative revolves around the self: something “feels” right to an individual, so it must be right. We turn to ourselves and our whims and desires as if we are G-d and as if we alone contain within us the truth. We humans are not G-d. We may have been given some insight in some areas, but we have serious blindness in others. As soon as we worship the self and submit ourselves to the dominion of the self, we are dismissing G-d as sovereign and the Torah as His truth. G-d created definitions and rules, and as soon as we dismiss them – and in turn, G-d Himself – we fall into formlessness and emptiness, tohu va’vohu. Chaos.
For the Jewish people, we have the entire Torah with all its minutiae which serves as our foundation. For the nations of the world, they need only turn to the elemental values shared by Bereishit. These foundational values were codified by the sages into the Noahide Laws: do not profane G-d’s oneness, do not curse Him, do not murder, do not eat the limb of a living animal, do not steal, maintain proper sexual relations, and establish just courts of law.
The Jews have further obligations beyond the basics. Inspiration and spirituality alone do not anchor a person: consistent action and practice do. And lucky for us, G-d gave us a book prescribing a variety of different actions and practices. G-d gave us this framework through which we can relate to Him and the people around us. These practices foster a genuine, tangible connection to G-d.
Within that framework, we have our own unique and very personal connection with Him; the “self,” in this case, cannot and should not be ignored. Yet as soon as we try to operate outside of that framework, we become slaves to our own desires and feelings, which brings chaos and destruction to the earth.
Genesis clearly demonstrates how humanity has faced a constant battle to distinguish between good and evil – with perilous results. The longer we pretend that this ancient, God-given book is irrelevant and outdated, the more we will plunge ourselves into the chaos.
In short, we are not God. We either absorb God-given truth and live by it, or we don’t. To trust in our own instincts entirely is self-worship, and to allow ourselves to be led astray by our own emotions is an act of turning away from God.
Know Him in all your ways, and He will direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own sight; fear the Lord and turn away from evil.Mishlei 3:6-7