You keep touting mitzvahs as things G‑d wants us to do. But if that were true, why didn’t He create the universe that way in the first place? If He doesn’t want us eating pork, why did He make it edible? If he wants men circumcised, why aren’t they born that way? Why are we messing around with the way He made things—and claiming that we’re doing His will?


Funny thing, I get that circumcision question a lot—but no one ever asks about ear-piercing, shaving or hair removal. Seems it’s an oldie, because Rabbi Judah the Prince, the famous redactor of the Mishnah, also had it posed to him by some Roman philosopher.1 In typical Jewish fashion, he responded that the same question could be asked of haircuts—why not let it grow? Or of grain growing in the field—why don’t bread loaves grow instead? Similarly, I could ask why G‑d makes earthquakes and then require that we go and pull the people out. Why make illness and then require that we develop medicines? And if we were supposed to wear clothes, I suppose He would make us furry, right?

Rabbi Judah’s answer was that everything G‑d made in His world requires some sort of fixing. That’s how the creation story in Genesis sums it up: “. . . all His work that G‑d created to do.” To do, the sages say, means to fix.

The question remains, why? If He wants it fixed, why not fix it Himself? Or better, don’t make it broken to begin with.

The answer takes more than one fascinating form:

1. To make us partners

Providing us mitzvahs to do is the ultimate act of generosity. If He had made a perfect world and beamed us down to enjoy it, He would effectively be rendering us parasites. By leaving some things incomplete and instructing us to fill them in, He promotes us to a full partnership in His creative work. And what aspect of His creative work? That which fulfills its true inner purpose, His innermost desire.

2. To render us real

Taking that a little further: Imagine a world conjured out of G‑d’s imagination, instantly behaving exactly the way He wished it should behave. What is there that is real or significant about this creation? What makes it any more than a whimsical fantasy?

Imagine you just made Pinocchio. Imagine you wanted Pinocchio to be your little boy. But imagine that Pinocchio has no free will, and even if he did, had everything laid out for him with no options in which to express that free will. Pinocchio is not your little boy, he’s just a nicely carved hunk of wood with suspenders.

By turning to us, the conscious characters within that creation, and saying, “Please do this . . . ,” G‑d provides us free will, along with the areas in which to express that free will. Mitzvahs, then, are the elements that render us real, to become “a significant other.” Or, in Torah language, kadosh—which we translate as holy.

Not only we, but also all the objects and activities that are implicated in the mitzvah, are rendered significant and kadosh.

Which, by the way, solves an enigma in the life story of the patriarch Abraham. At one hundred years of age, Abraham underwent circumcision. But didn’t he know earlier that circumcision was a desirable act for spiritual hikers, like himself, trying to get close to G‑d? The question is especially acute according to the Talmud’s statement that Abraham fulfilled the entire Torah although it was not yet given.2 So why did he leave out this not-such-a-detail mitzvah until he had to be told?

Our answer, however, solves the puzzle. If Abraham had performed the circumcision before being commanded, he would be doing it just like any other created being doing something nice. Once G‑d declares that it is now His official will that Abraham and his household be circumcised, the act of circumcision becomes a mitzvah, rendering the body of the circumcised significant and kadosh. Since circumcision, unlike other mitzvot, is a one-time-only opportunity, Abraham waited for G‑d’s command before opting in.

3. That’s just the way innermost desires work

Plunging yet deeper for the intrepid intellect, this is an inherent distinction between secondary and primary desires. Feeling intrepid? Hang in there.

Let’s start with a parallel from the human being. We also have intrinsic, primary desires rumbling beneath the surface of our consciousness—for example, the desire for territory, for love, for confirmation of our existence—whatever they are and however you wish to express them. These desires surface in the form of secondary desires: to earn money, to look good, to compete—all the mad races of human beings upon this planet.

Now take a look at how these two sorts of desires manifest. The secondary desires jump out immediately and spontaneously. The inner, primary desires, on the other hand, unfold gradually, sometimes after many years—in some cases, never achieving fruition. We run through our entire lives rarely, if ever, understanding why we do all the things we do.

Why is it this way, that inner desires do not manifest spontaneously, but unfold? Rabbi Shalom DovBer of Lubavitch explained: If a desire has any outward expression, it is already not the real you. As soon as you can know of it and feel it and act upon it, it is already a movement away from the innermost core.

Ironically, by this paradigm, the deepest expressions of the divine will are those acts which He did not expressly tell us to do, but which Jewish communities derived through study and celebration of His Torah. Examples are the rabbinical enactments and safeguards, customs and embellishments known as hiddur mitzvah. We, as a community, decided to send gifts of food to one another on Purim, to eat fruits on Tu B’Shvat, to dance with the Torah on the day we conclude the cycle of its readings. These are the most exquisite expression of desire closest to the core—that which cannot be commanded or told, sometimes not even alluded to in a nuance of the text, but sensed only by those who are immersed with their entire souls in His Torah with love.

It seems more than slightly absurd to apply human psychology to the One who came up with their design to begin with. In truth, the idea applies to Him in its most absolute sense. We are but the cheap imitation, created this way, “in His image,” so that we can come to some understanding of His workings with this world by more deeply examining ourselves.

You see, our innermost desires are innate: since we are human beings, we desire territory, love, etc. Our desires are really needs. The Creator has no needs; He is entirely free in every respect to choose whatever He wishes to desire. Once He has so chosen, however, then certain needs spring into place. Since those needs are conceived by necessity, they are born into existence by necessity. But since the inner desires are chosen by His free will, they are manifest in our world through our free will.

Let’s take an example: G‑d decides to desire that the seventh day will be a day of rest, so that Creator and created can commune in a state of un-movement. That’s an inner desire—nothing preceded it, demanding that it must be so. But once that desire is in place, there is now a need for a world that is created in six days, so that on the seventh, G‑d will rest, and His created beings will rest along with Him.

The second desire appeared spontaneously, and therefore is manifest in the same way: G‑d never asks the creation to create itself in six days, or forbids it to be created in five or seven or any other way. He dictates and so it occurs. The primary desire, however, that we should rest together, appears as a mitzvah: Just as G‑d chose it of His free will, so the human being must choose of his free will to observe the Shabbat.

Another example: G‑d chose of His free will that there will be conscious beings inside His creation that will declare His oneness every morning and night—a.k.a. “Shema Yisrael.” Accordingly, there must be morning and there must be night. That implies us creatures living upon a planet where darkness and light alternate, which in turn is fulfilled by a simple relationship between the movements of our planet and that of a fiery globe beyond us. Again, the patterns of nature are set in firmware, while the underlying desire that gave rise to those patterns is left as a user event.

And one more: G‑d chose to desire that physical beings make a covenant with Him through their physical bodies—and by implication there must be physicality, bodies, and a certain place on the body for circumcision. That which exists by implication becomes the natural order, occurring spontaneously within our natural world. The innermost desire is left up to us to choose, and to carry out.

Along with our choice to rescue survivors, heal the sick, and wherever we can, otherwise fix the world.