Fulfilling the commandments of G-d is, no doubt, the essence of Torah. "If not for my covenant day and night the laws of heaven and earth I would not have established" ( Yirmiyahu 33:25). Rashi begins his commentary on Chumash asking why the Torah begins with the story of creation? Being a book of mitzvoth, one might posit that it should have begun with the first mitzvah given to the Jewish people, namely, the sanctification of the new moon.
Nonetheless, a closer analysis reveals that it is not enumerating mitzvoth per se, but rather inculcating the values underlying the mitzvoth, that is the goal of Torah. The Ramban ( Vayikra 19:2) famously pointed out that one could technically observe all the mitzvoth of the Torah and yet still be a "scoundrel" devoid of holiness. Technicalities have their place; but they were always used by our Sages to alleviate human difficulties, not to avoid moral obligations. Thus, a court of law would look for each and every technicality to avoid the implementation of capital punishment. Our Sages "split hairs" to allow one to keep chametz in one's 'home' for Pesach or to charge "interest" and avoid huge financial losses. They allowed for the use of a Shabbat elevator, making life easier for the elderly and disabled living in many cities. The prohibitions against possession of chametz on Pesach , the charging of (non-usurious) interest, and the use of electricity on Shabbat are not ethical wrongs per se, but are prohibitions we would never observe were they not demanded by G-d. Our Sages thus felt no compunction in using technicalities to minimize any negative fallout from their observance. However, using a technicality to avoid a moral obligation, say, by giving someone a loan, bespeaks a person who has not absorbed Torah values, their level of observance of the actual mitzvoth of the Torah notwithstanding.
One of the big mistakes we often make--especially when teaching youngsters--is presenting Judaism as a series of do's and don'ts, of obligations, prohibitions and restrictions. Judaism is not just another list of rules. Rather, the do's and don'ts are the means to creating a G-dly personality, a just society and a world at peace. Man, left to his own devices, is prone to do that which is expedient, that which brings pleasure and serves his self-interest. The believing Jew tries to do that which is correct, that which brings fulfillment and serves the greater good of society. This is often the more difficult way, and we need the Divine imperative to ensure we follow this more meaningful path.
"You must seek out from among all the people, men of (moral) strength G-d fearing men, men of truth who hate injustice" (18:21).
The backdrop to Matan Torah, to Divine revelation, is Yitro's advice to Moshe regarding the proper administration of a justice system. It is not characterized by specific, objective behaviours. Rather, it is a description of the personality traits that are necessary leader, traits that will be obvious to all who come in contact with them.
As our people actually arrived at Sinai, G-d charged Moshe with the stirring words (a mission statement, if you will), that "you will be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation to Me" (19:6). The Netziv (19:5) explains that the command to be a "nation of priests" refers to our relations with our fellow man, which must be based on "the straight and the good"; and that of a "holy nation" regulates our relationship with our Creator. The exact contours of these obligations are not and cannot be defined by the Torah, as they are dependent on the given situation in which one finds himself. "Not all places and times are the same".
Priesthood and holiness derive their meaning from their influence on, and relevance to, the world around us. Actions which in the past may have been perfectly acceptable might, with the passage of time, become a violation of the ethical norms of society. Polygamy may have been perfectly acceptable during biblical times, but rejection of this practice by society as a whole helped create a climate in which the man who has multiple wives is excommunicated. To take this a step further, in the democratic, egalitarian societies in which we live, we must be attuned to the fact that many women of today see their roles as different from women of generations past. We must create models of holiness that speak to the women (and men) of today.
The Netziv adds a second explanation, primarily directed to the leaders of Israel . Our status as chosen by G-d obligates us to ensure that all our actions are for the sake of G-d, to glorify the name of G-d and not to advance our personal goals. May we merit that our observance of the mitzvoth of the Torah enable us to fulfill our mission to be "kingdom of priests and a holy nation".