“Our Sages compared the (positive) mitzvoth in the Torah to the limbs of the body and (the negative) to the days of the year” (Makkot 23b). No limb in the body operates independently. Rather, each is part of a larger system, with a defect in one part of the body impacting on others. So, too, mitzvoth are part of a broader system of morals, and no mitzvah exists in isolation. In rendering psak halacha, practical rulings, one must take into account not only the technical issues involved in any given mitzvah, but the impact on the system as a whole.
One of the most challenging roles for a parent or teacher is to figure out how to administer discipline that it fair, effective, and meaningful. The goal of such should be not to punish, but to educate and elevate. But alas, such is not a simple task, and it's most difficult to get it right. And if such is difficult when we have the best of intentions, it is impossible when our goal is to punish or get even.
Torah reading as we know it today is a rabbinic innovation, beginning with Moshe Rabbeinu who--in his rabbinic role (as opposed to his role as transmitter of the Divine Torah)--ordained that we must read the Torah on Shabbat, Mondays, and Thursdays. Ezra--who, the Talmud declares, was worthy to have the Torah given through him, but Moshe beat him to it (Sanhedrin 21b)--added the requirement to read it on Shabbat afternoons, and added the system of aliyot we have today (Bava Kama 82a).
The ritual of the sa'ar la-azazel is a most incomprehensible one. Howcan atonement of the Jewish people be in any way connected to throwing a goat off a mountain? Does such not go against the entire thrust of the Torah, in which sacrifices may only be offered at the Temple? Does this not border on the idolatrous?
"Everybody is eligible to walk it, but the kohanim made a permanent rule not to let an Israelite walk it" (Yoma 66a). The kohen gadol, hands resting on the sa'ir la-azazel, would say vidui, pleading for forgiveness for the sins of the Jewish people, at which point the goat would be led away la-azazel. Leading the goat out of the Temple and into the desert was apparently an act devoid of any special sanctity and hence, could be done by anyone, including non-kohanim.
One of great and tragic figures in our Talmudic corpus is that of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrkanus. Hailed by his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zackai, as a “cemented cistern that does not lose one drop”, his greatness was such that “if all the scholars of Israel would be on side of the scale and Eliezer ben Hyrkanus on the other, he would weigh them all down” (Avot 2:8).
For years, one of the most anticipated dates on the Jewish calendar was Rabbi Soloveitchik’s annual teshuva derasha given during the aseret yemei teshuva. He would keep thousands spellbound for hours as he wove together halacha, aggadah, derush, and more, expounding on the Rambam’s laws of repentance. His insights—so beautifully crafted and fitted together, and unnoticed before—would seem so obvious once his masterpiece was done.