52. Goals of the Torah
One of the goals of the Torah is to train people to overcome their animal natures so that they may subdue their physical urges as much as possible and give in to them only as much as is truly necessary. [III, 33] The things in which people typically overindulge include eating, drinking and sexual relations – the same things that serve as impediments to one’s spiritual growth, as well as creating societal problems. When a person gives in to these urges, he weakens himself physically and intellectually, shortens his lifespan, and creates resentment and enmity. All this for the sake of something that ignorant people consider desirable for its own sake! God therefore gave us mitzvos to counteract these urges and to prevent us from wasting our energies in pursuit of physical gratification. An example is the case of the “ben sorer u’moreh” (“stubborn and rebellious son” – Deut. Chapter 21), who was to be executed because it was clear from his gluttony and drunkenness that he would come to no good end. (Editor’s note: the Talmud tells us that there never was a case of a ben sorer u’moreh; the Torah only commanded the mitzvah for the lesson it imparts – Sanhedrin 71a.)
Another goal of the Torah is to train us to have good character and to treat one another well. We should listen to one another, not be stubborn, and respond to each others’ needs. Therefore, the Torah tells us things like not to be obstinate (Deut. 10:16), to pay attention (Deut. 27:9), and to be compliant (Isaiah 1:19).
Torah is also intended to teach its adherents purity and holiness by separating from pleasures, just as the Jewish couples separated for three days before receiving the Torah (in Exodus chapter 19). Similarly, a nazir separated from wine and is called holy (Numbers 6:5). If following these rules is sanctification, it stands to reason that doing the opposite is a form of defilement.
A person should strive to be clean in both body and soul; it would be unacceptable for a person to accept physical cleanliness alone, being content to have a heart full of lust and gluttony. Isaiah addressed this when he said, “They sanctify themselves and purify themselves to go into the gardens… eating pig’s flesh and detestable things…” (Isaiah 66:17). Such people appear to be clean on the outside but upon closer inspection we see that they are fulfilling all their urges in a manner that is quite contrary to the Torah.
The Torah’s purpose is to teach us to overcome our baser urges so that we may cleanse both our bodies and our souls. One who washes up and dons clean clothes but who remains tainted by bad actions and ideas is considered part of “a generation that is pure in their own eyes and yet who are not washed from their filth” (Proverbs 30:12). These principles are essential for understanding many of the mitzvos.