In the Torah we find many many mitzvot, but rarely do we find a clear articulation of the reasons or values behind the mitzvot, what is known as ta’amei ha’mitzvot. We are told that the mitzvot are inherently good and that by doing them we will inherit the land and receive God’s blessings. All of this makes it clear why doing the mitzvot is in our best interest. But were we to ask why we must do the mitzvot, the implicit answer in the Torah is: because God has commanded them. The Ten Commandments open with “I am the Lord your God who has taken you out of the land of Egypt” and from that reality flows our obligation to observe the mitzvot that follow. God commands, we must obey. Not only because of God’s power and authority: “I am the Lord your God,” but also because of our unique relationship with God: “who has taken you out of the land of Egypt.” It is this relationship, formalized in the brit, the covenant of reciprocal obligation and commitment, which is the implicit framing of all the mitzvot in the Torah.
In fact, if we start giving other reasons as to why we do the mitzvot, this could serve to weaken our sense of commitment. In one famous passage (Sanhedrin 16a), Rabbi Yitzhak tells us that the Torah did not give reasons for the mitzvot, because we then might think the reasons did not apply to us and that we would be exempt. The word of God must be followed regardless. This point is made in another Talmudic passage:
Rabbi Yitzhak said: Why do we sound the shofar on Rosh Hashanah?
Why do we sound?! All-Merciful has told us to sound!
What he means is, why do we sound a teru’ah?
Why do we sound a teru’ah?! The All-Merciful has proclaimed ‘a memorial of teru’ah”!
(Rosh Hashanah 21b)
The same Rabbi Yitzhak who told us that the Torah does not give reasons for the mitzvot, here asks to understand the reason behind the blowing of the Shofar. The Gemara rejects the premise of his question – you can’t ask why we do the mitzvot! There is only one reason – because God told us to! Any “reasons” are besides the point – we do the mitzvot because God has commanded them.
Such a definitive declaration should end the discussion, but interestingly, it does not. The enterprise of searching for ta’amei ha’mitzvot has been going on for millennia, reaching back to the time of Philo, and continuing through the Talmudic period, the Middle Ages – Rambam and the Kabbalists, the up to and including the period of modernity and today (see an overview of these historical approaches, here). It is hard to live a life of doing things “because I say so.” We would like to do things because they make sense; we would like to find meaning in what we do. It is thus not surprising that a strong counter-voice is heard. One that insists that ta’amei ha’mitzvot are alive and well.
Interestingly, a lot of this debate revolves around a mitzvah in this week’s parasha: the sending away of the mother bird when one takes the eggs out of the nest. The mitzvah would seem – at first glance – to clearly be an expression of the Torah’s concern for the mother bird. But not everyone seems to agree:
Mishna. One who says (in prayer): “Your compassion reaches to the bird’s nest” … we silence him.
Gemara… But regarding the bird’s nest, why (is he silenced)? Two Amoraim in the West (the Land of Israel) debate it: Rebbe Yossi bar Avin and Rebbe Yossi bar Zvida. One says because it places jealousy among the creatures, and the other says because it makes God’s attributes into compassion, while they are in fact only gezarot (decrees). (Berakhot 33b)
According to the latter opinion quoted here, a person is not allowed to say in prayer that God has mercy on the mother bird because it turns an arbitrary divine decree into an expression of compassion, seemingly rejecting the approach of ta’amei ha’mitzvot. The power of and the need for ta’amei ha’mitzvot is so great, however, that the commentators push back against this position. Ramban (Nahmanides), for example, finds a way to reinterpret this last position as just giving a different reason than the one of compassion (to wit, it is not concern for the bird per se, but concern for our own callousness and cruelty).
Rambam, on the other hand, freely admits that this position denies ta’amei ha’mitzvot, but states that such a position must be unequivocally rejected: “It is, however, the doctrine of all of us – both of the multitude and of the elite – that all the Laws have a cause.” although sometimes we are not able to understand what that cause is (Guide for the Perplexed, III:26). How, asks Rambam, could the mitzvot not have a cause? That would make God’s commandments completely capricious and arbitrary! What, then, about the opinion that sending away the mother bird is not based on compassion, and is just a divine decree? Well, says Rambam, that Sage is indeed of the opinion “that the precepts of the Law have no other reason but the Divine will.” This need not bother us, however, for “we follow the other opinion.” (Guide III:48).
According to Rambam, the way to deal with these opposing opinions is to endorse the one and reject the other. It would seem, however, that another solution is possible. The key is: what question are we asking?
If we are asking the question: “Why do the mitzvot?,” then there is only one right answer: Because God has said so. We might have other motives, but these are secondary or less than ideal. Any answer other than “Because God said so” both undermines the obligation that derives from the divine command, and, by holding out another goal as the true purpose, allows for the possibility of achieving that goal through other means. This is the meaning of the passage regarding the blowing of the shofar. Don’t second-guess God. I asked why you do something, then the most basic answer is “the Merciful one said to blow”. [There is an important debate if in the ethical sphere we should be motivated primarily by the divine command or primarily by an ethical mandate. This latter approach would lead to a qualification of the above to the religious, non-ethical sphere.]
But there is another question. Not what motivates us to act, but what is the purpose that is served by our actions. This is what Rambam is talking about. “The laws have a cause.” They serve a divine purpose. They are not arbitrary but are part of God’s plan; the work to achieve the goals that God has for this world. This is the legitimate enterprise of ta’amei ha’mitzvot: to understand not why we do the mitzvot, but the purpose that they serve, their underlying reason, the reason that God has commanded them.
Why is this an important question? Because if we understand that mitzvot serve a purpose, we will know that there is a purpose to our religious lives. We will live a life that is not just about following rules, but about living according to the values of the Torah. If we believe, for example, that God commanded us to blow shofar to serve as a wake-up call, then although we will do it because we are commanded, we will also make sure that when we do it, we will do it in a particular way. We will hear its sounds not as simple blasts, but as a wake-up call, and we will be spurred to do teshuva. Such awareness, moreover, will not only imbue our mitzvot acts with their intended meaning and help them to achieve their intended goals, but it will also spill over into other spheres. If we understand that God truly cares about the suffering of the bird, then we will care about the suffering of all animals, whether or not we are doing the mitzvah of sending away the mother bird.
While “God said so” is the answer to “Why do we do it?” and ta’amei ha’mitzvot is the answer to “Why did God command it?” these two do not easily keep to their own spheres, and by will inevitably live in an uneasy tension. The more we emphasize the former, the harder it is to bring concerns of meaning into our religious life. And the more we emphasize the latter, the easier it is to forget that at the end of the day, it is the divine command which obligates us. Our challenge is to live this tension in our lives, without ever sacrificing one side for the other. To live a life of commandedness and, at the same time, a life of meaning, meaning that imbues our commandedness and meaning that transcends and spreads beyond the boundaries of our commandedness to all aspects of our lives.