"Shoot!" (Q & A)

The Ascent Question & Answer Forum

conducted by Yrachmiel Tilles, Editor of the Ascent Quarterly


"I read your articles and now I can somewhat relate to having to do mitzvot in order to really understand them, rather than demanding to completely understand before doing. Could you set out a balance between the need to understand and the obligation to fulfill mitzvot that would help someone like me from a non-religious background?"


I appreciate where you are coming from. Like many of us, you are now ready to act Jewish. Really, when you are starting to do mitzvot, any motivation is fine, but if you are at a stage where you need a framework for understanding mitzvot, I hope the following will help.

Let's face it, we are finite beings, and it must be recognized that the scope of our intellect is limited; to understand everything is impossible, to expect to do so is futile, and to refuse to act without perfect knowledge is self-defeating. G-d, however, is infinite and His wisdom is unlimited. Fulfilling G-d's commands allows us to transcend the built-in limitations of our own intellect and to connect directly to the infinite. Therefore, the most concrete reason for doing mitzvot is that G-d commanded us to do so.

An example: Suppose I invite several people for dinner that I need to make a good impression on, and cook up a pot of beef stew for the occasion. Suddenly, a neighbor bursts in the door carrying a bag of groceries and trips over a nail, spilling a whole package of cheese right into the pot. This, of course, makes my culinary masterpiece as well as my pot treif (unkosher) and probably ruined the whole evening, since I have no other food and there is no kosher take-out place within miles.

What do I do? My guests know and care nothing about kashrut. If I believe that mitzvot are symbolic acts whose function is to impress moral truths on me, I would be tempted to say, "Serving this unkosher stew will not lessen my own or my guests' awareness of these truths."

Or, if I do mitzvot because they are my heritage, culture, or way of not forsaking my ancestors, I could say, "This relationship will not be jeopardized by my eating meat and mild together just this once."

Even if I accept that eating the stew will have unpleasant metaphysical repercussions on myself, others who eat it, the well being of the world, and perhaps the entirety of creation - unfortunately, under pressure, such convictions can easily be put aside.

But, if I say that the "Master of the Universe" decreed that the stew is not to be eaten…well, there is no arguing with the "Master of the Universe."

By the way, while it is easy to grasp that mitzvot convey moral truths or that they are a cultural heritage, the understanding that our physical acts directly influence higher levels of reality and therefore affect our on well being in particular and the entire universe in general may not be so apparent. Nevertheless, many people speak of matter and energy, time and space, mind and body, etc. as being a "continuum", rather than distinct entities. In medicine, for instance, it has been found that ailments previously thought to be purely physical can be healed through mental techniques, and vice versa.

In other words, the physical and the mental are not necessarily separate systems. We must come to the realization that just as "mind" and "body" are a continuum (and "time-space", etc.), so too are "physical" and "spiritual"; the division between them is more illusory than real.

Our actions in this world are a crucial link in a long chain of cause and effect reactions. By doing mitzvot, we help the world evolve and to ultimately fulfill its purpose. Our abstention from mitzvot withholds a necessary ingredient in this process and thereby impairs both the world's ability to function and our own.

The above concerns the concept of mitzvot in general. As for analyzing each particular mitzvah, let's save that for a future discussion. Whichever mitzvot you choose to do as you become more involved (and for whatever reasons) are fine. Just try to keep in mind that no matter how great the understanding you attain or how wonderful the personal benefits you reap, the goal is still to do mitzvot solely because G-d commands us to do so.

Yrachmiel Tilles

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