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Torah Sparks

November 8, 2003 - 5764

Prepared by Rabbi Lee Buckman
Head of School, Jewish Academy of Metropolitan Detroit

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Annual Cycle: Genesis 12:1-17:27 - Hertz, p. 45; Etz Hayim, p. 69
Triennial Cycle 3: Genesis 16:1-17:27 - Hertz, p. 56; Etz Hayim, p. 86
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27-41:16 - Hertz, p. 60; Etz Hayim, p. 94

Discussion Theme: The Purposes of Mitzvot

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless. I will establish my covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.” (Genesis 17:1-2)


  1. A pagan asked Rabbi Judah: “If circumcision is so beloved of God, why was the mark of circumcision not given to Adam at his creation?” The rabbi replied: “Almost everything that was created during the six days of creation needs finishing — even man needs finishing.” (Pesachim Rabbah 23:4)
  2. Once the wicked Roman ruler Tinius Rufus asked Rabbi Akiva, “Whose deeds are more perfect, God’s or man’s?” Rabbi Akiva responded: “Man’s.” Tinius Rufus responded: “Can human beings make the heavens and earth?” Rabbi Akiva responded: “Don’t pick an example that is beyond a human being’s ability to create; take an example that relates more directly to human beings.&rdquo Rufus asked: “So, why do you circumcise boys?” … Rabbi Akiva brought Tinius Rufus stalks of wheat and some flour and noted that the former are products of God’s doing whereas the latter is a product of man’s. Rabbi Akiva asked: Is not the flour more perfect than the stalks of wheat?” Tinius Rufus responded: “If God wants Jewish men to be circumcised, why didn’t God make it so that the infant emerged from his mother's body already circumcised?” Rabbi Akiva responded: The reason is that God gave the Jewish people mitzvot so that they can be perfected by them.” (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Tazria)
  3. What does God care whether a man kills an animal in the proper way and eats it or whether he strangles the animal and eats it? Will the one benefit God or the other injure God? Or what does God care whether a man eats impure or pure animals? “If you are wise, you are wise for yourself, but if you scorn, you alone shall bear it.” (Proverbs 9:12) So you learn that the commandments were given only to refine God’s creatures, as it says, “God’s word is refined, it is a protection to those who trust in Him (II Samuel 22:31). (Midrash Tanchuma, Parashat Shemini)
  4. Rav said: The commandments were given to Israel only in order that people should be purified through them. For what can it matter to God whether a beast is slain at the throat or at the neck? (Genesis Rabbah, Parashat Lech L’cha)
  5. “Yet for all that, in spite of their sins, when they have been in the lands of their enemies, I have not rejected them utterly” (Leviticus 26:44). All the good gifts that were given them were taken from them. And if it had not been for the Book of the Law (Sefer Torah) which was left to them, they would not have differed at all from the nations of the world. (Midrash Sifra 112c)
  6. If it were not for My law which you accepted, I should not recognize you, and I should not regard you more than any of the idolatrous nations of the world. (Exodus Rabbah, Ki-tisa, 47:3)
  7. Rabbi Haninah said: Greater is the one who is commanded to perform a deed and does so than one who is not commanded to perform that deed but does it. (Talmud Kiddushin 31a)
  8. It appears that this is the reason that someone who is commanded and acts is preferable: For he is worried and preoccupied that he will transgress more than someone who is not commanded, who is as if he has all his yearnings and needs satisfied, and can ignore them whenever he wishes. Tosefot Kiddushin 31a “Greater is the one”)
  9. Judaism’s commandedness and the discipline it implies create a constancy of awareness. Without commandments, we are like those who have no needs. But with commandments, we become like those who are hungry, constantly seeking sources of food, ways to satisfy our appetites. People who are hungry are always aware of their need for food. Similarly, Jews who feel commanded by mitzvot have a heightened spiritual awareness. Ultimately, the discipline of mitzvah creates an appetite for spiritual sensitivity that Judaism cannot otherwise provide… If Judaism’s quest for spirituality is a process of working slowly toward a relationship with God, then the daily content of Jewish life has to reflect that. With other human beings, building and maintaining relationships requires the commitment of regular behaviors. Though we rarely use such terminology, maintaining human relationships involves commandedness. Judaism suggests that relationship with God requires no less. (Rabbi Daniel Gordis, God was not in the fire)
  10. Mitzvot as a way of life, as a fixed and permanent form of human existence, preserve religion as a goal in itself and prevent it from turning into a means for attaining a goal. Indeed, most of the mitzvot have no sense unless we regard them in this manner, as an expression of selfless divine service. Most of the mitzvot have no instrumental or utilitarian value and cannot be construed as helping a person fulfill his earthly or spiritual needs. A person would not undertake this way of life unless he sees divine service as a goal in itself, not as a means to achieve any other purpose. Therefore, the halakhah directs its attention to one’s duties and not to one’s feelings. If mitzvot are service to God and not service to man, they do not have to be intended or directed to man’s needs. (Yeshayahu Leibowitz, “Commandments,” in Cohen and Mendes-Flohr’s Contemporary Jewish Religious Thought)


Genesis 17:1 asserts that one function of mitzvot is to perfect the human being, “be blameless.” The midrashim cited as well as additional sources support that notion that mitzvot help refine us as human beings. One could suggest a whole range of rationales for following the mitzvot: They are inherently wise; they define moral values and motivate us to be moral; they regulate a relationship with God; they provide a means to attain holiness; they establish a separate Jewish, national identity.

But Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a contemporary Jewish theologian who died this past decade, argues that: “Every reason given for the mitzvot that bases itself on human needs — be they intellectual, ethical, social or national — voids the mitzvot of all religious meaning. For if the mitzvot are the expression of philosophic knowledge, or if they have any ethical content, or if they are meant to benefit society, or if they are meant to maintain the Jewish people, then he who performs them serves not God but himself, his society, or his people. He does not serve God but uses the Torah of God for human benefit and as a means to satisfy human ends.”

Do you accept Leibowitz’s argument that being motivated by anything but pure service to God is idolatry? Thinking personally, what underlies your motivation to perform mitzvot?

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