As we have seen, the major authorities of Jewish tradition lay out the proper approach towards ta’amei ha’mitzvos. Rambam and Ramban1 explain that while there is great merit in the pursuit of finding reason, human logic, and meaning in the mitzvos, the infinite Divine wisdom — and the true reason for any command — ultimately eludes us. There can be, and very likely always is, a greater depth, reason, and effect behind the various mitzvos that humans will never understand despite our best efforts2. Rashi, Tosfos Yom Tov, and R. Abraham Isaac Kook also point out that the formal state of prayer is not the time for this speculation, but should instead be reserved for less official settings so as to highlight the fact that while a person can certainly propose a reason for a given mitzvah, one can never say he or she has found the reason.
The ultimate takeaway from the study of this topic should be the recognition that God is ultimately unfathomable and beyond us. The confines of the deep meditative and contemplative state of prayer is a good time to focus on this reality. During the rest of our lives, however, we can and should try to understand the mitzvos as best we can, all the while reminding ourselves that anything we might come up with is nothing more than a mere suggestion or possibility. Such is the healthy balance between na’aseh and nishmah
Positing reasons for the commandments is instinctual and natural. It can and does add meaning to one’s performance of the mitzvos. Any suggested reason, however, can never be established as the reason we keep any particular mitzvah. As Rambam explained, humanely achievable explanations are meant to assist in our performance of the mitzvos, but they are all mere conjecture. There is great merit and purpose in finding a logic in, and connection to, God’s various commandments, but it is also perfectly logical and certainly adequate that “God said so” be the only reason a person has at times. Indeed, to observe the mitzvos only because they “make sense” is wildly misguided. We do because God said so3. We look for reasons only so as to better connect to that which God commanded.
The word “mitzvah,” after all, does not mean “good deed,” as it is so commonly translated, but “commandment.” Ultimately, we simply are not privy to the Divine calculus. We cannot comprehend God’s infinite will. At the most fundamental level, we observe God’s commandments simply because “He said so.” Even without our study of the various sources as we have here, this truth should be self evident.
The entirety of the Divine plan is not revealed to us. We do not know where the universe is headed, nor its ultimate goal, and thus we do not always know why certain things must happen in order to get it there. We know only that they must. In short, there is a time for conjecture and there is a time to realize that we do not know everything.
Read the other installments in this “Fundamentals” series here.