This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Noach, completes the enumeration of the mitzvot incumbent upon all human beings. They are: not to worship idols, not to curse God’s name, not to murder, not to engage in forbidden sexual relations, not to eat the limb of a living animal, not to steal, and to establish a court system. Of this list of commands six are negative and one is positive. These commands comprise the shiva mitzvot bnai noach, “The Seven Noachide Commands.” The reason non-Jews have only seven commands is not a “limit” to their performances. Rather they are considered the minimum requirement to retain the right to life. In other words, if a person cannot comply with these seven Noachide laws, his/her life is meaningless.
Lest one think that the Torah views the non-Jew in any way less than a Jew, after all God gave 613 commands to the Jews and only seven to the non-Jews, this notion, attitude and philosophy of life is itself against the Torah. In last week’s Torah portion, Bereshit, God makes it abundantly clear that the term “adam,’ refers to “all mankind,” male and female (Bereshit 5:1-2) and that both male and female were created “in His image” (Bereshit 1:27).
Why then are there two systems of mitzvot mentioned in the Torah? What is the need for the additional 606 commands that Jews have but non-Jews don’t have? Furthermore, can non-Jews keep these other 606 mitzvot voluntarily?
While it is true that the 7 Noachide commands maintain a person’s right to life, they are not understood to be all that man can be. A non-Jew, therefore, is not prohibited from observing the other 606 mitzvot save the keeping of Shabbat (or creating any day as a complete day of rest) and the studying of Torah mitzvot other than the seven Noachide commands. So a non-Jew, for example, can study all of Torah’s stories and philosophy as well as the Books of the Prophets and Writings. He or she can keep the laws of kosher and fulfill the mitzvah of Sukkah. However, the Talmud tells us that a righteous Noachide, a non-Jew who accepts that God commanded these 7 mitzvot and keeps them, merits life in the World to Come. We pray for the fulfillment of this idea at the conclusion of every prayer service. It is the fundamental theme of the Aleinu prayer.
The reason why the above is true is precisely because there is no inherent difference between a Jew and a non-Jew. The soul or essence of both is created exactly the same way, “in the image of God.” Every human being, therefore, is provided the opportunity to achieve Olam Habah, existence in the World to Come. But here is the point. The 613 mitzvot system is a system designed for human perfection. It was, in fact, given to the descendants of the greatest Noachide, Avraham Aveinu, Abraham our father. His descendants are charged by God to be the guardians of this system of perfection but not just for themselves. The Ramban’s commentary on Deuteronomy 33:4 makes it clear that any human being who desires to live the most fulfilling existence possible for man, the system of 613 mitzvot, is welcome to convert to Judaism. Again such a phenomenon would not be possible were there any innate or inherent qualitative differences between Jew and non-Jew. A convert, then, is on the same footing as someone born into the system. Should the non-Jew wish to remain not Jewish, he or she could still, as mentioned above, embrace all 606 commands on a voluntary basis save the strict adherence of Shabbat and the study of mitzvoth other than their seven.
Why can’t the non-Jew remain as s/he is and keep the Shabbat or study Torah laws outside the realm of their 7 commands? The reason is not due to any racial discrimination as is clear from what we already said. Any human being can join the Jewish people. However, the Torah specifically says that Shabbat is “… a sign forever between Me (God) and the Children of Israel…” (Shemot 31:16-17). Here we see a specific exclusion by God of all others but the Jews. Again the verse in Deuteronomy 33:4 states, “The Torah that Moshe commanded us is the heritage of the Congregation of Jacob.” Again the Jewish people are singled out by God as the repository of the Torah. What is the thread linking these two commands?
The chief purpose or role of the Jewish people is to be the teachers of the true ideas about God and His system of human perfection to the rest of mankind, “… you are to be a kingdom of priest and a holy (distinguished) nation.” (Shemot 19:6) The function of priests is to teach and instruct the faithful in the religious ideas and practices. This nation is also to be unique. The Torah’s position is clear. The Jewish people are to serve all mankind in two specific ways. One way is by teaching and a second way is through their national distinction.
This primary function of the Jewish people, however, would be blurred or distorted were there no way to distinguish them and their responsibility from others. Were a non-Jew permitted to study every mitzvah in the Torah, it would give the impression that they too are knowledgeable of the entire system and thus responsible for its dissemination. This idea is false. That is not God’s plan. Also, some distinction must be drawn that will indicate to those seeking the true ideas of God and the knowledge of human perfection to whom they should go to learn. This knowledge is vouched safe only with the Jews. Who are the Jews? They are the people who observe a complete day of rest one day a week in celebration of the idea that there is a Creator of the universe. They are the same people charged with the study, implementation and teaching of the entire 613 mitzvot system. Hence, they are also the only ones who can instruct the non-Jew in the proper performance of the seven Noachide laws
This Shabbat has been designated as “The Shabbat Project” Shabbat around the world. Jews all over the world are encouraged to observe this Shabbat completely. Not only is there great reward for all Jews who keep Shabbat but now we see another purpose. Our keeping Shabbat is beneficial to the non-Jewish world as well. As a nation we participate in God’s will and plan to assist all those seeking Him and perfection as a human being. The Shabbat serves to identify the only nation from which the qualified teachers can be found.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan