Parshat Behar effectively concludes the legal section of Vayikra- the sefer with the highest degree of halachik density. The entire book of Vayikra contains only two stories which interject in an otherwise unceasing stream of halachot. The beginning of the parsha presents the the intricate laws of shemittah and stresses their delivery at Sinai. This unnecessary tagging of shemittah laws to Har Sinai is noticed by Chazal, who famously assert that shemittah is actually a prototype meant to reflect a general pattern regarding all mitzvoth. Just as the laws of shemittah were delivered- both in generalities and in detail – at Sinai similarly the entire halachik corpus was entirely delivered at Sinai. Not only were general themes provided but the entire networked system of halachik minutiae. To be sure, there is significant debate regarding the precise sequencing between Sinai and subsequent moments of Torah transmission. The question of how many details were actually provided at Sinai and how many were elaborated at later stages is the subject of some debate. However, it is clear that Sinai constituted more than just a summary or a “synopsis” of Torah but included specific items and detailed information about mitzvoth. This scheduling highlights the importance of details within halachik observance and within religion in general.
To some, the detailed minutiae of halachik observance seems petty and idiosyncratic. While Divine will can certainly be recognized in the general themes of mitzvoth does G-d really care about picayune details? For example, Shabbat observance is clearly an important religious moment as it recalls creation. However, does it really make a difference if the meat is prepared through valid Shabbat methods or in some other fashion? Does G-d actually care and if so why? Why is Halacha so “obsessed” with details?
Firstly, details are valuable because they anchor religion to the day-to-day routine. Without detailed halachik observance, religion quickly becomes detached from human behavior and fades out of consciousness. Religion is more than just an assembled system of ideas. The details of Halacha allow religion experience to innervate the entirety of human behavior. Without this penetration, halacha can detach from reality and become merely a vague system of beliefs – adopted during moments of religious meditation but irrelevant to the concrete world we occupy and operate within. Without question, religions which have abolished or curtailed rituals and ceremonies have faded into obscurity within the modern “secular city”.
Additionally, at a practical level, details assure uniform religious experience and, by extension, religious continuity. Though everyone subscribes to the themes of Pesach and even the general guidelines of a matzo and non-chametz diet, without detailed mapping, our Pesach experiences would be wildly different and our religion would sink into a motley assortment of disparate rituals. Tradition and community- the bulwarks of religious experience- would vanish amidst a rowdy circus of personal observances – all sincerely intending to express Divine will but baring no resemblance to each other and promising no continuity or commonality.
Most importantly, details in Halacha assist us in maintaining the Divine tone of halachik observance. We believe that every single mitzvah has purpose and benefit to humankind; otherwise G-d would not arbitrarily command us. While we may not discover the rationale to all mitzvoth we certainly hope to comprehend most of them. However, it is virtually impossible to fully understand the rationale behind every single detail of halacha- hard as we try. There are just too many details and their interactions are too untraceable. Adherence to the details of the mitzvah, which are ‘bulkier’ than mere general principles, reminds us of the Divine enormity present in halachik obedience. Without details mitzvoth seems like human-sized strategies for life; with details mitzvoth feel like deep abysses of Divine meaning. It was essential that Sinai combined generalities such as the Ten Commandments as well as specifics points of halachik performance.
Though details are essential for comprehensive halachik appreciation, they also provide challenges– both intellectually and experientially. Intellectually, we study Torah to discover the will of G-d about every aspect of the human condition. Understanding His will is the closest we can achieve toward understanding G-d Himself. Though we assiduously study the details of Kiddushin, G-d’s image of marriage is more than just a list of the constituent details contained in that tractate. Ultimately, the whole is much larger and more resplendent than the sum of its parts. When we study His will we must try to connect details into a larger snapshot of His will. Merely studying random Halachik details without attempting to associate these details into larger ideas and deeper meanings can minimize these large ideas and reduce the Divine will into an array of micro points. We access Him through the study of these details but we must be capable of envisioning larger concepts of His Will.
More significantly, because halachik behavior is so detailed it can obscure the larger reason for halachik observance- a relationship with G-d. Halacha is so demanding and its scope so sweeping that it may disguise rather than highlight the Divine presence. Since the degree of human energy – both intellectual and emotional- necessary to understand and apply halacha is Herculean, we are sometimes at risk of investing exclusively in the system and not sufficiently connecting with the author. Halacha is so mammoth that it can, and essentially should, engulf all our resources. There is an old adage about a person who worships the Shulchan Oruch but not G-d- an expression which portrays the danger of becoming exclusively engulfed in halachik discipline without attending to the relationship with G-d with halacha enables.
Halachik details are absolutely crucial for complete religious experience. Halachik fidelity isn’t expressed merely though general practices or beliefs but in the willingness to find G-d even in the most “trivial” and minor aspects of the human condition. This type of ‘micro-experience’ is unique to Judaism and lends it depth and vigor. That being stated, this micro-experience shouldn’t distract us from the macro-experience of building a relationship with G-d.