Why do we observe the commandments? I’d like to explore one view on what the mitzvos are intended to accomplish.
The Convert’s Summary
The starting point has to be that G-d does not need our observance. He is perfect without any needs. The mitzvos must be for our benefit. A prospective convert approached Hillel and asked to convert to Judaism on condition that Hillel teach him Judaism while the convert stands on one foot. Hillel told him, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others” (Shabbos 31a).
This summary of Judaism is challenging. The Torah’s laws can be divided roughly into three types: 1) between man and G-d, 2) between man and man, and 3) between man and himself. How does Hillel’s concise description of only the second type serve to cover all of Judaism? Additionally, Rav Stern points out, many people act kindly to others while violating the other types of commandments.
Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern (Tahaluchos Ha-Aggados , ch. 5) says that Rashi and other commentators struggled with this, and he offers his own answer. In short, the commandments are intended to create the ideal political society, an other-oriented community. The prospective convert asked Hillel for the center around which the entire Torah revolves; that center is interpersonal commandments (type 2). However, given man’s selfish nature, Divine command and enforcement is required. The commandments between man and G-d (type 1) remind people of the severity of interpersonal commandments (type 2) due to the Commander. Without a Divine command, inevitably we would fail to treat each other properly. Even if we can find the few exceptions, the majority of people naturally revert to selfishness absent fear of G-d. All of these mitzvos provide a reminder of G-d’s role in our personal and national lives. These are more important, because fear of G-d serves as our primary guard against our own nature, therefore the basis of interpersonal mitzvos.
The commandments between man and himself, i.e. to better himself and avoid physical and spiritual danger, teach us what our neighbors need. When we understand ourselves better, we can provide more appropriate help to others.
Hillel’s summary of interpersonal commandments sounds like a Libertarian stance. He seems to be saying, “Leave others alone.” Rav Stern disagrees with this interpretation. The Torah clearly phrases this in positive language: “Love thy neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). Hillel softens the language because truly loving another as oneself is impossible. However, the Torah still demands that we help others actively, rather than merely avoiding harming them. We must be happy with the success of others, helping them achieve it and refraining from halting its progress.
We can question whether this approach seems plausible. If the goal is interpersonal behavior, is all this effort we expend to learn Torah useful? Where is the idea of developing a personal relationship with G-d? Ultimately, who needs religion if society develops positively without it? Rav Stern emphasizes that most mitzvos are not interpersonal. The commandedness of interpersonal commandments, the guidelines of halachah, keep us from deviating. We were created as selfish beings for good reasons and need G-d and religion to overcome that nature. A society cannot function selflessly without G-d. We need a plethora of mitzvos between man and G-d and between man and himself to create the Torah society in which we properly observe our interpersonal mitzvos.
Torah learning is intended for practice (Avos 4:5; Tosafos, Sotah 22b sv. le-olam). We remember G-d constantly, in many different ways throughout the day and the year, to maintain our devotion to His path. Love of G-d leads to imitation of G-d’s attributes of mercy and kindness. The Torah begins with G-d’s chessed of clothing Adam and Chavah and ends with G-d’s chessed of burying Moshe (Sotah 14a). The message to us should be clear.
On the one hand, chessed without commandedness, without fear and love of G-d, i.e. so-called Tikkun Olam, quickly runs off the tracks of divinely commanded selflessness — as can be seen by its championing the cause of forbidden relationships. On the other hand, so much of our society has fallen into the traps of materialism. The greed and gluttony of much of contemporary Orthodox society betray a lack of commandedness, a selfishness thinly cloaked in piety, a rampant navlus birshus ha-Torah (moral degeneracy within the technical limits of the Torah).
We need the mussar, the constant reminders of our obligations, because we seem to forget them too quickly. The Torah may seem like it contains too many obligations, but we need them now more than ever to avoid the quicksand of materialism in which we struggle.