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Beyond Reward & Punishment: A Deeper Understanding of Mitzvos

Photo by Artyom Kabajev on Unsplash

What is the reason to perform God’s commandments? Is it to gain a reward, either some material bounty in this physical realm or some eternal bliss in the celestial hereafter?

What is the penalty for flaunting God’s directives? Is it physical suffering and misfortune in this world, or some infernal damnation in the world to come?

Sadly, this simplistic concept of reward and punishment is the prevailing mode of motivation and/or intimidation with which the Torah and its mitzvos are taught. It is no wonder, therefore, that so many today have turned their back on their tradition in favor of something more inspiring and meaningful.

Within the Torah, there are 613 commandments that God delivers to His people. 365 of these are negative commandments, or things that one should not do. And 248 of these are positive commandments, or things that one is directed to fulfill. What is the genuine reason that God gives us these commandments, and what is the ultimate benefit of complying with them?

One of the places in Torah where these questions are addressed is in a section that we repeat twice daily in the recitation of the Shema: “And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day to love the Lord, your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, I will give the rain of your land at its time, the early rain and the latter rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. And I will give grass in your field for your livestock, and you will eat and be sated”(Deuteronomy 11:13-15).

After promising the material rewards that will result from the fulfillment of the commandments, the citation then goes on to warn of the consequences for disobedience. On the simple level, these verses indicate that the mitzvos are a system of law through which one is to demonstrate her/his obedience to God’s will. There is reward for compliance, i.e. the fulfillment of our physical needs, and there is punishment for defiance, i.e. the withholding of our needs. Understood this way, God has supplied us with the commandments in order to control our behavior and to recompense us for our choices.

There is nothing false about this understanding of Torah. Yet it is simply a surface level of comprehension. If one remains at this superficial level, the rich beauty and sublime profundity of the Torah will remain untapped. In analyzing these verses that we recite each morning and evening in the Shema, the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, reveals that the reason and reward for the mitzvos is far deeper than we commonly understand.

As the first verse above is commonly translated in Torah and the prayerbook, it reads “and it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day, to love the Lord your God…”. There is a striking problem with this translation, however, which can be detected by anyone with even a beginner’s understanding of Hebrew grammar. The word for “love” in the verse is “לְאַהֲבָה/l’ahava,” which is a noun and not a verb. For the verse to read properly as it is translated, it would have employed the infinitive verb “לאהוב/l’ehov/to love.”

The use of the noun “ahava,” the Alter Rebbe explains, indicates that the second part of the verse – “to love the Lord your God” – is not merely a continuation of the beginning of the verse or an elaboration of what it means to “hearken to my commandments” as it is simply read. Rather, this second clause is the outcome of the original condition. “And it will be, if you hearken to My commandments that I command you this day,” then what will occur? “L’ahava es Havaya E-loheichem” – you will reach “to THE love of the Lord your God.” In other words, the love that the verse describes is not what we are to do, but rather it is something that we will attain if we observe the commandments.

What is this “ahava es Havaya E-loheichem/love of the Lord your God” according to the Alter Rebbe? It is not the love FOR God that we are to have, but it is the love OF God, or the love that God Himself experiences. This level of love is called “ahava rabba/great love.” It is beyond the world and its vicissitudes. It is not conditional or temporal. It is referred to in the verse as “ahava es Havaya E-loheichem” because it fuses the infinite (which is represented by God’s name Havaya) with the finite (which is represented by God’s name E-lohim).

From God’s perspective, everything is completely one and consummately perfect. There is no stress and no fear, no anger or greed or envy. All of these emotions are a function of the facade which we temporarily inhabit. “Olam/world” is a cognate of “helam/concealment,” and this world is a realm that conceals the ultimate reality of God’s utter unity. This is the mystic truth that we recite in the first verse of Shema – “Shema Yisroel, Havaya E-loheinu, Havaya echad/Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One!”

As we continue the Shema, another powerful secret is revealed. We are informed in the verse that we have been discussing how we can transcend this realm of concealment and division and live lives of harmony and union even as we inhabit this “olam hasheker/world of falseness.” If we “hearken to the commandments,” then we will be able to reach “l’ahava es Havaya E-loheichem/to the love of the Lord your God.”

Here we see that the mitzvos were given to us not simply to govern our conduct or test our obedience. They were granted us as a means of transcending the tumult of this brute and finite existence. As such, the mitzvos are not simply a set of rules and restrictions. They are a practice that enables us to strengthen our spiritual muscles and leap beyond the constraints of this limited material realm.

The performance of mitzvos is a methodology through which we can access the Godliness that is hidden within us. Through these metaphysical exercises, so to speak, we can begin to see and experience our existence from a divine perspective. At that point, we come to understand that it is not physical reward in this life that we are after, or even spiritual reward in the world to come. Rather, the ultimate reward is learning to love fully and constantly even in the darkness of this world; to overcome fear and anger and rivalry and stress, and to see ourselves and all of the creation in the way that God does, with the awareness that in our deepest essence, we are one.

The writer is the author of the recently released Pnei Hashem, an accessible introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah. www.pneihashem.com

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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