The Reality of Mitzvos

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

As Bnai Yisrael encamped near Har Sinai, preparing for the seminal event of the receiving of the Torah, God explains to Moshe how, through the acceptance of the covenant of the Torah, Bnai Yisrael would become a "Kingdom of priest and a unique nation". Moshe passes this along to the nation, resulting in the famous proclamation that whatever God says they will do. The Torah then tells us that Moshe returned (vayashev) to God with their response. The Torah (Shemos 19:9) continues: 

God said to Moshe, ‘Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people will hear when I speak to you, and they will also believe in you forever.’ Moshe told God the words of the people.

What is strange about this pasuk is that Moshe does not seem to conveying anything new! 

The Talmud (Shabbos 87a) notes this problem, and then expands the question:

And Moses reported the words of the people unto the Lord; and it is written, 'And Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord'.  Now, what did the Holy One, Blessed be He say unto Moses, what did Moses say unto Israel, what did Israel say to Moses, and what did Moses report before the Omnipotent?”

The Talmud, after first offering the possibility of the mitzvah of hagbala being related, offers the following:

Rebbe said: At first he explained the penalties [for non-observance], for it is written, 'And Moses reported [va-yashev]', [which implies] things which repel [meshabbebin] one's mind.  But subsequently he explained its reward, for it is said, 'And Moses told [va-yagged]', [which means,] words which draw one's heart like an aggadah.”

Clearly, what troubles the Talmud is the entire exchange between God, Moshe and Bnai Yisrael. Why was it important to relate this information to Bnai Yisrael at this point? What effect was it supposed to have on Bnai Yisrael? What were they to understand?

In order to understand the purpose of the information, it’s important to recognize that at this point, Bnai Yisrael were not Jews, at least not in the way we think of a Jew. They did not have a Torah. The Divine system was not yet bestowed upon them. As such, they were no different from a ger, who must start at the very beginning.

The Rambam (Hilchos Issurei Biyah, 14:2-3), in his review of the different halachos regarding the process of conversion, writes that after explaining the concept of Yichud Hashem to the aspiring Jew, and then reviewing a few of the different mitzvos, the ger is presented with the following:

“...and he is informed of the punishment for the mitzvos. How? They say to him ‘Do you know that until you came to this religion, if you ate forbidden fats, would you receive kares (spiritual excommunication)? If you violated Shabbos, would you receive the punishment of sekila (stoning)? And now that you are converting, if you eat forbidden fats, you will receive kares, and if you violate Shabbos, you will receive the ganev punishment of sekila’...”

In the following halacha, he explains that the ger (convert) must be informed of the reward of the mitzvos as well, and that the performance of the mitzvos entitles him to a chelek olam haba, the reward of the afterlife. Finally, he writes that a true tzadik is a chacham who performs the mitzvos and knows them.

Why is it necessary to relate the punishments and rewards to the ger? Why does the Rambam use the examples of chelev and Shabbos? Why would the ger presume he might be liable for eating chelev or violating Shabbos? And what does he mean about the definition of the tzadik? 

Looking at the order Rambam lists, one can see a progression taking place. First of all, the ger must understand philosophically what separates Judaism from all other religions – Yichud Hashem. The most fundamental core of our entire ideology is this one idea, and this must be understood first and foremost. Along with this comes the antithesis of this idea, that of idolatry. Once a person understands this, he is then introduced to a few of the mitzvos, so he sees that there is a system of laws that govern this religion. 

The ger is then told about the punishments and rewards associated with the mitzvos. After a person has learned a little about the mitzvos, he comprehends that being a Jew obviously involves following a set of guidelines. But this does not set Judaism apart – every religion and society has a set of rules to abide by. Civilizations revolve around social contracts, replete with rewards and punishments. A person naturally intuits the need for punishment for actions such as stealing and murder. Yet the Torah, the covenant being entered into by the ger, is different. If a person was told he would suffer complete religious excommunication for eating a piece of fat, or suffer death by stoning for burning an object on the seventh day of the week, he would be aghast at such a proposition. There is no empirical reality to these violations, and yet one suffers the ultimate spiritual and physical fate. The rewards are identical. 

Most people assume that the practice of religion should result in physical rewards – wealth and success, for example. Yet in Judaism, the reward for the performance of a mitzva has nothing to do with the physical world. Both the punishment and reward are tied into the philosophical realm. These are more than rules. The mitzvos are a means to perfection, allowing man to live in line with his tzelem elokim. In this context, the ger is taught that indeed one could lose his life for giving in to his instinctual desires, or die for violating the day set aside in the study of God. The ger must understand that the core of the Torah is redefining the physical world into a gateway to perfection. 

The Rambam chooses chelev and Shabbos precisely because they have no empirical expression in the physical world; they epitomize the category of abstract halacha.  Therefore, to the Jew, it is no longer a piece of fat – it is "chelev". And it is no longer another day – it is Shabbos. And the benefits? The performance of mitzvos enhance the mind and perfect the soul, allowing for a greater level of Yediyas Hashem, knowledge of God. The promise of olam haba, a “place” whose only benefit lies in the philosophical, sets Judaism apart. Finally, the Rambam explains that the ger must know that it is not the rudimentary action that brings the person to this level, but the comprehension and understanding of the idea that allows him to soar to new heights. 

Bnai Yisrael were gerim as well, a nation ready to accept this new system of Torah. Up to this point, they understood the concept of Yichud Hashem (Shemos 3:14), and were already introduced to some of the mitzvos (by Marah). After God speaks to Moshe, and the information is relayed to them, they could easily conclude that the covenant being proposed was simply a guide, a set of laws to help advise them on how to act properly. God has Moshe explain that this religion is completely different. They are first taught that there are punishments tied into a philosophical state of mind, a revolutionary idea that counters a person’s natural outlook on life. This is the “repelling of the mind” described by the Talmud, a complete intellectual upheaval, a concept completely foreign to one’s being. To the merit of Bnai Yisrael, they accept this concept. Now, being in this state of mind, God has Moshe explain the rewards. Why does the Talmud use the example of that which “draws one’s heart to an aggada”? When one first approaches an aggada, he usually sees a strange, fantastical story or event that defies logic. Through careful analysis and thought, one can unravel the mystery behind the strange facade, possibly revealing a tremendous yesod, principle. The benefit of this is purely abstract, the enjoyment tied into an intellectual satisfaction. There are no award ceremonies, no cash prizes – “just” an increase in knowledge and perfection. The aggada is a microcosm of the overall approach one must have to the reward of the mitzvos. 

Bnai Yisrael came to understand, and so too we must understand, that the reward for the proper performance of the mitzvos is tied into a philosophical good, and the enjoyment one obtains in these actions lies in the ability to see the infinite chachma of God unfold.