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Commentary on Tanakh Discussion March 1, 2021

Don Perlmutter

“Why do we do a mitzvah; for a reward or for the sake of the mitzvah?”

Mitzvah Defined and Numbered
Led by Rabbi Mike Stevens, we engaged in a lively discussion in which we first attempted to define “mitzvah." Group suggestions implied a connotation of kindness, and charitable acts, which is only partly accurate. In fact, there are six hundred thirteen mitzvot or commandments, three hundred sixty-five of which are negative: “Thou shall not murder.” This is one for each day of the solar year. At two hundred forty-eight, there are far fewer positive mitzvot: “Honor the Sabbath Day and keep it holy…” one for each bone and main organ of the body. The numerical equivalent of the word “Torah” is six hundred eleven, the number of commandments contained in the Torah. When added to the two commandments that Moses heard from God, the sum is six hundred thirteen.

So Why Do We Do Them?
Leviticus, explicitly, embraces a “carrot & stick” approach to performance of mitzvot. If we follow the laws faithfully and observe His commandments, we will prosper in every imaginable way. Conversely, if we disobey, starvation, illness, cannibalism, and desolation will result. We see this threat of ruination again in Deuteronomy juxtaposed with the promise of blessings. 

So, clearly, the Torah employs reward and punishment as a means of promoting “righteous” behavior among the Hebrews, both to honor God and each other.  

We can speculate that these commandments were formulated to create structure and discipline in an unruly group of ex-slaves who had only known authoritarian rule. They may have required those controls to maintain order and develop ethical standards. Eventually, as the slave generation passed, their offspring would begin to internalize this prescribed behavior. To paraphrase Antigonus, “Do not serve the master with the expectation of receiving a reward." There is a hint here of self-punishment (otherwise known as guilt) for transgressing.     

Pirkei Avot, which was compiled in the second century, deals almost exclusively with ethical teachings and maxims from Rabbinic tradition. Here, the tone is less authoritarian: “The reward for performing a commandment is another commandment." 

As our own Beth Shalom Prayer Book eloquently states: 
“A mitzvah is an action we do knowing it is the right thing to do, without needing explanations.”

 The Answer
There has been a clear evolution from the authoritarianism of Tanakh to internalization of ethical behavior as in Pirkei Avot. Perhaps this was a result of the growth in sophistication and maturity of the Jewish People.

We concluded our discussion with Rabbi Edery’s prayer beautifully set to Rabbi Stevens' original music:
“We do not perform a mitzvah to go up to holy heaven; we do it to help bring heaven down to earth. As we do a mitzvah, we make time and place become a holy moment and a holy place.” 

Wed, July 17 2024 11 Tammuz 5784