"Why should I observe Shabbat or put on tefillin?" This question is the inevitable reaction whenever the mitzvot are discussed. The question might go beyond the simple "why"; it may reach into intellectual difficulties, problems involved in theoretical commitment and practical observance, conflicting claims on the individual's present life and loyalties. Sooner or later, the scornful point out, we will revert to an apparently helpless appeal to the inscrutable, infinite wisdom of G‑d — an appeal which they regard as a cop-out, an evasion of real issues.

There are two forms of questioning that emerge when mitzvah observance is discussed, and they should be kept apart. First: why did G‑d command us to do, or not to do, such-and-such? Second: what will observing the mitzvah do for me? Will it make me a better person?

Let us take the two forms of questioning in turn.

A popular question is why the Torah should forbid the eating of certain kinds of meat. With a gleam in his eyes as if he had suddenly made a startling original discovery, the questioner will patiently proceed to explain that in the "olden days" people did not have the sanitation, government inspection, and refrigeration that exist today, don't you see? In those days, the kosher laws made sense. But aren't they irrelevant today?

An ordinary layman might be excused for this superficial questioning. After all, he does not pretend to Jewish scholarship. But all too often this same argument is parroted by people who should know better. In the 11th century, Rashi, in his classic, universally accepted commentary on Torah, clearly and repeatedly declared (and he was quoting a Talmudic statement made many centuries before his own day) that the Biblical ban against eating pork was one of those prohibitions in the Torah for which there is not rational explanation. Had he considered it to be a "health measure," he would have included it among the "rational" laws, which we will discuss shortly, but he obviously did not view it as such.

Observers of human behavior seek to explain human patterns of conduct in terms of their underlying values and motivations, conscious and subconscious. This is reasonable because the observer and his subject are human. Both observer and subject may have similar cultural backgrounds; if not, then the observer should at least be familiar with this subject's background. The extent to which he acquires this knowledge will have an influence on the conclusions he draws. Some common ground between observer and subject is essential in enabling the former to find and explanation for the conduct of the latter. What the observer is saying in effect is, "If I were to behave like my subject, what would my motivation be?" If the subject's background is completely alien and unknown to the observer, and if the observer is unable to draw on his own previous experience with apparently universal human traits, it would be futile for the observer even to attempt to explain the motivations for his subject's values and behavior patterns.

This could apply also to a human "observer" who attempts to find the "motivations" for the laws of G‑d. There is an infinite, unbridgeable gap between the intelligence of man and the wisdom of G‑d. As Isaiah proclaimed, "Your thoughts are not like My thoughts." The human mind and experience are limited. No one mind can encompass the totality of human knowledge. The world of the unknown is infinite and constantly growing. The human capacity for thinking is limited by dimensions of time and space. We lack the ability to picture a Being who is everywhere at the same time, for Whom past, present, and future do not exist, for Whom, indeed, there is no time or space at all. We need not go into further detail on the limitations of the human intellect. The point we want to make is simply that the workings of the human mind are not, and can never be, comparable to the "processes" of the thoughts of G‑d.

In attempting to find rationales for Torah and mitzvot, man in effect is saying, much like the scientist-observer, "If I made such a law, what would my motivation be? Why should anyone want to propose such ordinances? What meaning do these laws have for us?" The only thing wrong with this approach, when applied to the study of the Torah, is that the Torah was not proposed by "anyone," by a mind on a par with that of the questioner, but by an intellect beyond the limits of that of man. G‑d's reasons for His mitzvot are beyond our powers of divination. His reasons are constant, unchanging, even as He himself is not subject to change. It is only man's subjective appreciation of the mitzvot that varies.

The Second Question

In contrast to the question we have just described, the second form of questioning, "Why should I observe the mitzvot?" is perfectly legitimate and possibly answerable.

Here rationalization is appropriate, because our question centers not on G‑d but on man and his needs. What, you ask, will putting on tefillin do for me? Why should I refrain from driving on Shabbat, eat only kosher food, and pray three times a day? What are the effects of mitzvah observance? These questions can all be answered, and in fact, it is only proper to ask them, for once the Jew has found his answers, he will perform the mitzvah with more enthusiasm and spirit than before, and will be more sensitive to its effects. Torah is mean to be understood; blind obedience can be deceptive and superficial.

Before exploring a particular mitzvah, we must recognize several implications of this second form of questioning. Your answer, whatever it may be, is bound to be subjective, and there is — within reasonable limits, of course — no such thing as a "wrong" answer to the question, "Why should I keep the mitzvot?" What the Jew must do, and how he must do it, come under the heading of Halachah, of law, which by its very nature is objective and impersonal. On the other hand, the question why the Jew observes these laws, what significance they have for him, is subjective and the answer is not the same for every individual. Some may be led by sentiment; others may think in terms of Divine reward and retribution; still others act out of respect for principles and ideals, or out of a sense of identification with Jewish history and the Jewish people.

There is no doubt that personal motivations for mitzvah observance have changed as Jews have moved through time and across continents. Shabbat cannot have had the same personal significance for a Jew who lived in a peasant or shepherd society as it did for a Jew in the early cruel industrial age or as it does for a Jew in our own increasingly widespread leisure culture. For one Jew, Shabbat may be simply a day of rest from exhausting toil; for another, it may be an opportunity to study Torah; for a third, it may be a time for pleasant association with family and friends in a congenial Shabbat atmosphere. Perhaps Shabbat may be regarded as the sign that distinguished our own faith from that of others and this preserves the individuality of Judaism.

Let us go further. An explanation for a mitzvah, say candle lighting before Shabbat, which may seem entirely logical and convincing to a young girl may not impress her mother and grandmother, and vice versa. Considerations that appealed to me yesterday may not persuade me today, for all of us can, and should, grow in wisdom and sensitivity as we mature. Maimonides traces the process of maturation in the changing motivations that lead man to study the Torah in the course of his lifetime. At every state of life the motivation is different, and though it may be imperfect in idealism and selflessness, it is appropriate to that particular phase in the individual's personal growth.

In sum, then, as people and their ideas vary or change, so, too, do their personal reasons for observing the mitzvot. The rabbi cannot supply these motivations, for what may appeal to him is his personal affair, not some Olympian edict applying to everyone. A Jew is not free to decide whether or not a mitzvah itself is addressed to him; but every Jew is free, and indeed duty-bound, to meet the challenge of finding out what the observance of the mitzvah should mean to him as an individual. Don't ask someone else what kashrut should mean to you. Ask yourself, because no one can give you the answer. Others might provide guidance, but no one can supply your answer.

The next inference follows naturally: There is no such thing as a "wrong" answer to the question, "Why should I observe the mitzvot?" Any answer that inspires you to do the right things is a "right" answer. To be sure, some motivations are nobler and less egocentric than others, and in this respect man should mature even as he matures in sensitivity and human compassion, in Torah learning and in warmth of spirit. But as long as the answer you have found fulfills its function — to induce you to do as you should — that answer is the "right" one for you.