Why observe the mitzvoth? Because He said so!


In broad term terms, our parasha, Re’eh, divides meat for consumption into two distinct categories — b’sar korban (sacrificial meat) and b’sar ta’aveh (chulin, or non-sacrificial meat). The first group constitutes the subject matter of Devarim 12:11-19 and 26-27, while the latter is found in 12:20-25. In the midst of its presentation of b’sar ta’aveh, the Torah teaches us that it is forbidden to consume blood:

“Be strong not to eat the blood, for the blood is the soul; and you shall not eat the soul with the flesh. You shall not eat it, you shall spill it on the ground, like water. You shall not eat it, in order that it be good for you, and for your children after you, when you do what is proper in the eyes of the L-rd. (Devarim 12:23-25)

These verses present us with a significant exegetical problem. Why do we need such “encouragement” to refrain from eating blood? After all, most people might agree that the very thought of eating blood is disgusting in the extreme. Rabbi Shimon bar Rabi tackled this problem in Mishnah Makkot III:15:

Rabbi Shimon bar Rabi said:

“Behold the Torah states: ‘However, be strong not to eat the blood, for the blood is the soul.’ When it comes to [the eating of] blood wherein one’s very being is revolted [by such a thought], [nonetheless,] one who refrains from [eating it] will receive a reward, [so, too, in the case of] stealing and illicit relations, wherein one’s innermost being is desirous thereof — and he lusts after them — one who separates himself from them will all the more so [receive reward]. [Moreover, not only] will he merit [reward, but so, too, will] his future generations, and all generations that will come from him until the end of time.”

Rabbi Shimon bar Rabi is teaching that we must be sensitive to the Torah’s unusual phraseology, and that beyond a shadow of a doubt, eating blood is a revolting and abnormal act. Yet, it is no less true that if we refrain from eating blood because it is Hashem’s will, rather than because we are naturally repulsed, we will receive a tremendous reward that will protect our children and our children’s children throughout all generations to come. 

If we reexamine Rabbi Shimon bar Rabi’s statement a bit more closely, it appears that he is actually revealing a fundamental element of Torah observance and, by extension, an essential aspect of our relationship with Hashem. He is instructing us that our explanations of the mitzvot must never be viewed as the reasons why we perform them. Instead, we must be focused on one basic and overriding truth: We observe the mitzvot solely because G-d commanded us to do so. Whether or not we understand a mitzvah, or believe we have discovered its rationale, its absolute demand upon us, its unquestionable claim upon our being, is derived from the Voice that eternally issues forth from Mount Sinai.

On the most basic level, therefore, we must always recognize that there is a tripartite process that forms the background of each and every mitzvah: Hashem as the metzaveh (commander), the mitzvah (commandment), and man as the metzuveh (commanded). Each time we fulfill a Torah precept, we demonstrate our loyalty to our Creator and His holy Torah. Moreover, we declare to all mankind that the relationship forged with our forebears continues to flourish until our own moment. When we fulfill the mitzvot, we are joyfully proclaiming: “Hashem Hu HaElokim.” (“Hashem is our G-d and Master”) (Devarim IV:35)

Given these ideas, I believe we have found an answer to the question, “How should we approach the mitzvot?” We need to address them with a sense of awe and humility, coupled with an ever-present recognition that we are fulfilling G-d’s will. This means that while the cognitive gesture surely enhances our appreciation and understanding of the mitzvot, it is not the rationale for their fulfillment. Humility, even in the case of the mitzvot, must ever be our watchword.

This crucial concept was given powerful voice by Michah the prophet: “O man, what is good, and what the L-rd demands of you; but to do justice, to love loving-kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d.” (VI:8) With His loving help may this be so. V’chane yihi ratzon.