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The Mitzvah is the Blessing

There is an age-old philosophic question: Are the mitzvot good because God gave them or God gave them because they are good? A careful reading of the opening verses to this week’s Torah portion sheds light on the answer.
“See, I have placed before you today, a blessing and a curse. The blessing: that you hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God that I command you today. And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of Hashem your God and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow other gods that you do not know.” (Devarim 11:26-28, ArtScroll)
What does it mean when we say “the mitzvot are good because God gave them?” It means that whatever God said to do or not to do is good. The activities may be completely arbitrary but because God said it, that makes it good. So, for example, if God said to stand on our head every morning, it would be good to do it and harmful if we don’t.
However, if we posit that God gave the mitzvot because they are good, then we should have a totally different perspective on the system of mitzvot. We are raised and ingrained from earliest youth and training to do something in order to receive a reward or benefit and to avoid doing something out of fear of punishment, suffering some resultant negative consequence. Slowly, over time and with education we can come to do things or avoid activities because we see the inherent benefit or harm of our actions. At that moment we act on a higher plain, out of knowledge.
The translation of the opening verses to Re’eh quoted above follows the understanding of many of our Torah scholars. The mitzvot were given by God because they are inherently good for us. Many people confuse the notion of reward and punishment with blessings and curses. The understanding of our scholars is that God’s system of reward and punishment is unknown to man. It is impossible for anyone to calculate all of the factors that are taken into account by Hashem in His judgment stemming from His infinite wisdom.
However, God did make known to us the most beneficial course of action for mankind, the system of mitzvot contained in the Torah. Following them is God’s blessing to us. There is nothing greater. To paraphrase the Rambam, from his commentary on Mishnah Chelek in Talmud Sanhedrin, “Expecting or doing a mitzvah for reward is like giving a candy bar to a child for his or her study or compliance to a request. The child thinks getting the candy bar has far greater value than the activity itself. Rather the reward or value of the mitzvah is the doing of the mitzvah itself.” This idea, in brief, is the concept of תורה לשמה, “Torah for its own sake,” for its intrinsic value. This means we engage in the system of mitzvot without regard to any other practical gain or loss.
As we enter Chodesh Elul this Shabbat and begin to prepare for and contemplate the coming high holiday season, may Hashem grant each of us the opportunity to experience daily the words of Psalm 19 that we recite each Shabbat morning: “The Torah of Hashem is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of Hashem is trustworthy making the simple one wise; the orders of Hashem are upright, gladdening the heart; the command of Hashem is clear, enlightening the eyes.” (Psalms: ArtScroll)
The mitzvah is the blessing!
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Robert Kaplan
 
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