The Purpose of Mitzvot by Rabbi Hyim Shafner
Do mitzvot have reasons or are they purely a Divine decree? Should we live lives insulated from other cultures or integrated with them? Is religious life an ascetic one or should we take advantage of life’s pleasures? Lots of theological profundities which impact the way we live our lives are the subject of much difference of opinion in Judaism going all the way back to the Talmud.
Different eras have required different answers to these fundamental questions. For instance, the German Pietists in the 12th century were insular ascetics while at the same time in Spain the Sephardic sages were engaged in Spanish life, its pleasures and its poetry.
How should we see such central theological questions in our own time?
We are in the midst of reading on Shabbat about the crafting and erection of and the services within the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The Ark served as the hidden power center of the Tabernacle. It contained the tablets of the law and was flanked on top by two golden kiruvim, cherubs.
We understand the need for an ark to honor and hold the tablets, it is something we ourselves have in our synagogues, but why golden cherubs? Indeed, their idol-like appearance seems like a dangerous risk. In fact there are those who say the heads of the cherubim were, like in the vision of Ezekiel, the heads of a shor, a cow, forming a sort of golden calf.
Maimonides (who very much believed that all mitzvot have reasons) in the Moreh Nivuchim, the Guide to the Perplexed, 3:49, writes:
Most of the “statutes” (hukkim), the reason of which is unknown to us, serve as a fence against idolatry. That I cannot explain some details of the above laws or show their use is owing to the fact that what we hear from others is not so dear as that which we see with our own eyes. Thus my knowledge of the Sabean doctrines, which I derived from books, is not as complete as the knowledge of those who have witnessed the public practice of those idolatrous customs, especially as they have been out of practice and entirely extinct since two thousand years. If we knew all the particulars of the Sabean worship, and were informed of all the details of those doctrines, we would clearly see the reason and wisdom of every detail in the sacrificial service, in the laws concerning things that are unclean, and in other laws, the object of which I am unable to state.
According to encyclopedia of myths and legends:
The cherub itself can be traced to mythologies of the Babylonians, Assyrians, and other peoples of the ancient Near East. In these cultures, cherubim were usually pictured as creatures with parts of four animals: the head of a bull (cow, calf), the wings of an eagle, the feet of a lion, and the tail of a serpent. The four animals represented the four seasons, the four cardinal directions (north, south, east, and west), and the four ancient elements (earth, air, fire, and water). These original cherubim guarded the entrances to temples and palaces.
The cherubim created the expectation of a deity in their center, but in the Mishkan, instead of an idol between the cherubs as in the ancient Near East, there was empty space. It is from that space that the Divine voice emerged, teaching the Jewish people that their G-d is not concrete, not limited, without image. That in the emptiness the Divine emerges.
We live in an era in which taamey hamitzvot, understanding the reasons for mitzvot as impactful in physical, emotional and spiritual ways is important. Today the majority of the Jewish people do not find much meaning in keeping the Torah just because they are commanded. They are proud to be Jewish but it is the nature of our era that without a profound sense of why mitzvot are beneficial, there will be little interest. If we do not choose the correct attitudes for our era, we will be bereft.