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Reasons for Mitzvot

by Rabbi Dovid Bendory, Shevat 5765 (January 2005)

One of the first questions asked when a person begins to take Judaism seriously is: "Why?" Why does Hashem want us to lay tefillin? Why does He need me to pray? Why don't we mix milk and meat?

There are a number of ways to categorize the mitzvot; one such categorization is to group them according to their alleged purpose: ethical commandments, ritual commandments, commandments that keep us from idol worship, etc.

The "ethical commandments" typically include those that secular societies value as well: do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery. These are commandments wherein we can see the value to human civilization. Were they not given by Hashem in the Torah, we would have come to them on our own.

Then there are "ritual commandments" to which we can ascribe meanings like "they make you a better person." These are things like Sabbath observance; do not lie; do not worship idols. Some of these commandments might fit into the ethical category (do not lie); others are more personal. But we can find meaning in them.

The problem comes in certain commandments that seem to have no reason whatsoever. What is the problem with wearing shatnez? Why isn't pig kosher? And, perhaps most mysterious of all, why not eat milk and meat?

Through the generations, all sorts of reasons have been ascribed to these commandments. Pork causes trichinosis if it isn't well-cooked; pig is not kosher for health reasons. But the prohibition on milk and meat is always a stickler.

In his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides devotes an entire section to assigning reasons to the commandments. First, he begins by explaining that we cannot fathom the reasons for the commandments, that to be able to do so would presume that we have G-d's knowledge and wisdom. Therefore we must keep the commandments for their own sake, we must keep them because Hashem told us to. Having said that, he adds that G-d-given human intellect demands that we search for the meaning behind the commandments even if we can never find it.

So maybe separating milk and meat is good for your digestion. Maybe it isn't. Maybe it is healthy to separate them. Maybe it isn't. Maybe they were eaten together as an ancient form of idol worship. Maybe they weren't. The point is, none of this matters.

A Torah Jew doesn't eat milk and meat together because the Torah says not to. Period.

Once you understand and accept that, you are on your way to keeping the mitzvot for the right reason. And only then are you truly doing a mitzvah and observing the Torah.

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