THE BACKDROP OF MITZVOT

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The famous Mishna from T.B. Makkot 23b states, in the name of Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya, that God wished to benefit the Jewish People so He gave them an abundance of Torah and mitzvot. Rashi explains that this greater number of commands is deemed beneficial for it offers a person an opportunity for more reward in fulfillment of these additional mitzvot. A problem exists, though: does this greater number of commandments not also present a greater possibility for transgression and, as such, not reward but punishment?

Rashi, therefore, includes in his remarks that what is specifically meant by this statement is that God gave more directives in regard to actions which one would have undertaken in any event. God, for example, commanded us not to eat certain foods which we would have never thought of eating in the first place. In observing such commands, reflecting actions we would have done anyway – such as refraining from eating certain foods — we are now, though, subject to reward for observing these mitzvot.1

In a certain way, what Rashi is also causing us to consider with these words is the very purpose of mitzvot. In a strange way, what Rashi would seem to be saying is that the very purpose of a mitzvah is the reward which is extended to the individual who fulfills the command. If reward is offered for an action which would have been done anyway, because it now is in fulfillment of the direction of a mitzvah, what does this say, though, about the action in itself and/or the significance of such a command and the response to a directive, especially a Divine directive? Avot 1:3, which seems to maintain that the focus in performance of a mitzvah should not be on the reward, also comes to mind.2 Many assume that the value in a mitzvah lies in its effect, how it changes behavior.

It is in this positive effect on behavior that we can truly see the inherent value of a mitzvah. That God would create a mitzvah to have us act as we would have acted anyway must cause us to question our very understanding of mitzvot. If we would have acted that way anyway, why the need for the mitzvah? Furthermore, what is the propriety of this subsequent reward?

It must not be that a mitzvah must necessarily cause a change in behavior. Defining a certain behavior as an act in fulfillment of a mitzvah does, though, still define the act as proper. Applying Rashi’s case, people may not eat certain foods even if not commanded to refrain. This is just part of the nature of human beings. Defining such an act as a mitzvah does inform us, though, that this behavior – even given that people would act in this manner anyway – is proper. There is value in such restraint. This natural aspect of the human being does reflect a higher characteristic within humanity. Herein may lie a most significant aspect of Rashi’s perspective. Who is natural man? Does he/she have inherent, redeeming characteristics? There are many who seem to believe that natural man is inherently an animal, without any redeeming qualities.

It is only the voice of some external ethic which can keep humanity in line and able to reach a higher standard of behavior. In God declaring it to be a mitzvah to act as a human being would act in any event, the very nature of humanity is thereby, however, also sanctified. It is proper, in this case, to do what you would have done anyway. This, though, must lead us to a recognition of a greater complexity within the human being. There are times when a mitzvah indeed calls upon us to act in contrast to what we would have done naturally. There are other times, though, when a mitzvah will just reinforce what we would have done in any event.

How are we to then see our natural selves? In the absence of clear cut mitzvah guidelines and directives, how are we to apply our natural instincts correctly? How am I to know when my voice is proper or not?

T.B. Ketubot 50a presents an interesting halacha which it derives from Bereishit 28:22: One should not give more than twenty percent of one’s earnings to charity. The Gemara than goes on to tell of a case of a Torah scholar who wished to give more but was directed by a friend, another Torah scholar, not to do so. It would seem that we are talking about a natural drive within a person to give charity and a direction from the halacha not to follow this natural drive. What stands out, though, is that, even as the halacha directs us not to follow this natural drive, we still clearly see this natural drive as positive. The fact is, as the Gemara itself explains, the problem lies in the extended consequence – that, through giving too much charity, one will himself/herself become needy – not in the inherent fulfillment of the drive.

This raises another dimension in our attempt to understand the natural self and its relationship to mitzvot. It may not be that a drive is inherently good or problematic, that mitzvot simply inform us about what is positive and negative within us. A human drive must be evaluated within the context of the specific moment and the breadth of one’s full personality and possible extended circumstances.

In regard to this mitzvah limiting our charitable activities; this mitzvah may actually want a person to feel the desire to give more to charity but to understand the need for limitation because of the broader picture.3

Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 1:1 states that are many different character traits in humanity yielding many different types of personalities. Pursuant to such a perspective, it would actually be difficult to speak of humanity in terms of a singular, basic natural self. There would seem to be a plethora of natural selves. Each of these natural selves would then seem to have a point of propriety in regard to the Torah standard of appropriate character. The Torah can thus speak to me naturally in one matter while in a different context it would seem inherently unnatural to me. To another person, this perception of what is natural and unnatural may be different. The challenge is, thus, a personal one.

Human beings were not created arbitrarily. The challenge of a mitzvah is not simply in the struggle of abiding by the directive or not. We were each given elements of personality which we are supposed to integrate into a complete, personal and individual self which reflects the Divine. A mitzvah which informs us that what we would have done anyway is to be rewarded thus has great value in informing us about these elements. We also must recognize that just because a mitzvah instructs us to override a natural drive in one circumstance does not mean this drive does not have significant value in another situation. Through Torah, we are building something; we are constructing our higher selves. This is a self, though, that still flows from our natural being as God initially created us.

Footnotes
1 This issue of how the very creation of more mitzvot must be inherently beneficial is one that is addressed by numerous commentaries. For another approach, for example, see Rambam, Perush HaMishnayot on this Mishna.
2 See, also, Avot 4:2 which states schar mitzvah, that the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah.
3 We may wish to note, although we will not be discussing it, that there is a halachic question of whether a billionaire is bound by this rule, as the chances of that individual possibly thereby becoming needy is extremely rare. As can be expected, there is actually a divergence of opinion.
© Nishma 2016

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