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What is the purpose of observing mitzvot?

This sedrah continues Moses' second address to the Israelites. It contains mainly social laws. Interestingly, this week's reading contains the most mitzvot. Seventy two, by RaMBaM's enumeration! For this reason I am interested in exploring the issue of the purpose of observing mitzvot. We will all have our own personal answer to "what is the purpose of mitzvot". Not surprisingly our answers no doubt differ. Similarly our ancestors have also embraced different understandings for the purpose of observing mitzvot. Here are two different points of view.

In a very ancient homiletical commentary called Devarim Rabbah it is written: "What is the meaning of the verse 'for they are a graceful wreath upon your head' (Proverbs 1:9). Rabbi Pinhas ben Hama said: 'wherever you go pious deeds will accompany you'." He then proceeds to list numerous mundane types of mitzvot found in this week's reading. For example, he reminds us that "when you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof" (Deuteronomy 22:8); " you shall not mingle stuff " [i.e., wool and linen] (Deuteronomy 22:11) and other mitzvot concerned with everyday matters. The point that this midrash makes is that mitzvot grace our ordinary lives. They provide us with the opportunity to consecrate the mundane aspects of our lives which, as the great Torah scholar Nechama Leibowitz eloquently put it, "[t]he mitzvot elevate his daily, egoistic activities to the level of divine service".

Another midrash, however, refers to the same mitzvot but draws a different conclusion. Instead of being ornaments gracing our lives, the second scholar sees mitzvot as necessary lifelines. After citing the same mitzvot as were in the first midrash the second darshan (commentator) concludes with a story comparing God's giving (commanding really) mitzvot to that of throwing a lifeline to someone who has fallen overboard into a violent sea: "...Take hold of the rope with your hand, and do not let go, for if you do you will lose your life! In the same way the Holy One Blessed be said to Israel: As long as you adhere to my commandments then, 'You that cleave to the Lord your God are alive, everyone of you this day' (Deuteronomy 4:4).

Thus, we have two distinct ancient explanations for the purpose of observing mitzvot. One point of view says it is because they bring holiness into our lives. The other view says it is because mitzvot offer us a lifeline in a sea of selfish passions, ambiguous morality, and murky ethics.
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah