How does one come close to G-d? How can one hold on to great religious experiences as we go through the daily routine of life? This was the problem facing the Jewish people as the events of Sinai faded. How would we be able to ensure that the Sinai experience would infuse our lives with holiness?
The Torah hints at an answer with the long series of laws that follow on the heels of Sinai. These laws which focus on interpersonal relations are the key to Divine service. They progress from those norms which prevent the breakdown of society to laws that reflect the ethical demands placed on a holy nation. We begin with those laws which carry the death penalty such as kidnapping, cursing parents and progress to the prevention of bodily assault and property damage and even the rights of animals. The Torah then moves to detailing the meticulous nature with which we must guard our friends' possessions; to the obligation to loan money (interest free) to those in need; to helping our enemies and protecting the rights of the foreigner, a revolutionary concept in the ancient world. Helping man is thus transformed to Divine service.
At the conclusion of these interpersonal laws the Torah then details a small number of laws regarding our relationship to G-d. Shmitta, Shabbat, the three pilgrim festivals, and kashrut. Having focused on creating a just society we are now able to properly worship G-d. Yet interestingly, even here we focus on the interpersonal aspect of the mitzva.
“In the seventh [year] you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it, and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves” (Shemot 23:11). Missing from this explanation is the standard one given in Vayikra (Chapter 25) that it is a Shabbat to G-d, a way to acknowledge, as does Shabbat, G-d's ownership of the world. If we truly believe G-d created the world and rested on the seventh day then we will treat our workers with dignity, respect and consideration for their needs. If we wish to demonstrate that "to G-d is the land and all therein" (Tehillim 24:1) then we will gladly share our produce with others. Those who are lacking in their observance of the mitzvot between man and man are unable to properly worship G-d.
The Torah continues, “Six days you shall do your work and on the seventh day you must rest so that your donkey and ox will be able to rest and your maid's son and the foreigner will be able to rest” (Shemot 23:12). We must observe Shabbat lest we exploit those who work for us or work our animals too hard. No mention is made of G-d creating the world in six days and resting on the seventh.
All mitzvot between man and G-d are meant to enhance our observance of the mitzvot between man and man. One who fully believes in G-d - a most difficult mitzva - would never dream of hurting those created in His Image. The mitzva of prayer further helps to develop our sensitivity to others. How can we ask G-d to satisfy our needs if we do not tend to the needs of others? Relatedly, it teaches the importance of community. Optimal prayer requires community presence and it is when we gather as a community that we become sensitized to its needs. The laws of Passover teach that we must fight for freedom for all. Belief in Mashiach requires that we try to perfect the world. Fasting on Yom Kippur helps us to understand the need to alleviate hunger in the world. The laws of modesty teach us the importance of respecting the privacy of others. Kashrut teaches that there must be limits to our desires. Sitting in a sukkah teaches us the temporary nature of life and thus inspires us to act now. The list goes on and on.
Divine service, by definition, means improving the lot of man. The path to Sinai and Divine revelation is right in front of us each and every day. By helping bring a smile to someone's face we bring ourselves closer to our Creator.