Torah – the true north to our moral compass

  • ParshaRabbiSamThurgood
One of my teachers, Rabbi David Aaron, tells the story of a student whose father had recently passed away. “My father,” the young man said, “was an atheist, and a fantastic human being. It’s true that he didn’t have the Torah in his life, but frankly I don’t think he could have been more moral even if he had the Torah. So why do we need the Torah?”
by Rabbi Sam Thurgood, Beit Midrash Morasha | May 21, 2020

It’s a pertinent question as we approach Shavuot, and likely one that you have asked before. We have all had the joy of meeting decent, admirable – even awe-inspiring – people whose faith is significantly different to our own, or (apparently) non-existent. And we’ve all had the misfortune of knowing someone whom we saw as representative of our faith betray the moral principles that we hold dear. So what’s the moral role that Torah is supposed to play in our lives?

Daniel Kahneman writes in Thinking Fast and Slow that human beings are naturally good grammarians (a child of four effortlessly conforms to the rules of grammar as she speaks), but poor statisticians, regularly misjudging the size of a data set we would need to draw conclusions.

Rabbi Dr Nahum Rabinovitch answers our question with a similar approach. First, a word about this Torah giant, who passed away only this month. Rabinovitch was one of the most brilliant and creative minds of our generation; the world’s greatest expert on the works of the Rambam (Maimonides), a leading halachic authority, a master educator (you are undoubtedly familiar with his student, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks), and a PhD in mathematics.

Rabinovitch points out that people naturally have a moral compass that gives them a strong sense of values, but we are quite poor at consistently putting those values into practice in a way that has clear boundaries. For example, we all feel a moral responsibility to ease another’s suffering, but how far should we go in this regard? We want to honour and help others, but that raw desire doesn’t guide us in how to do so whilst also being responsible to ourselves. The Torah systemises these moral drives, giving us parameters as to when, to whom, and how far our responsibility extends. My analogy is that the human moral drive is the engine, the Torah is the steering wheel.

The corollary of this approach is that Torah guidance without moral drive is also insufficient. All of the moral parameters and guidance in the world won’t help one who is not, himself, committed to the endeavour of being a good and moral person.

We have all been blessed by Hashem with a sense of right and wrong, a need to help others and to leave the world better than we found it, but without divine guidance, those very impulses can become terribly destructive instead, as history bears witness. Through Hashem’s gift of the Torah, may we merit to harness and direct our altruism to achieve incredible things.

Chag Sameach!


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