Understanding Our Relationship with Mitzvos
The Gemara (Sotah 49a) says that in the absence of the Beis HaMikdash, the world only continues to exist because of the kaddish recited during “Uva L’tzion” and after aggadic, or homiletical, Torah study.
Nowadays, at the conclusion of public divrei Torah — most commonly after Pirkei Avos on Shabbos afternoon or between Mincha and Maariv during the week — we often recite an excerpt from the final mishnah in Maseches Makkos (23b) to ensure that aggadic material was learned to necessitate a kaddish.
For many people, reading those two lines primarily serves as a mechanism to allow the recitation of kaddish, rather than an act of Torah learning. Taking a moment to understand and internalize the message of that mishnah, however, lends insight into our relationship with Hashem through His mitzvos.
The mishna reads, “Rabbi Chananya ben Akashya says: The Holy One, blessed be He, wished to give Israel merit. Therefore, He increased Torah and mitzvos, as the verse states: ‘Hashem desired, for the sake of [Israel’s] righteousness, to make Torah bigger and mightier.’”
Here, mitzvos are not something we do for Hashem, but something Hashem does for us.
We often think of Torah and mitzvos as something that we do for Hashem. I might wake up early on a Sunday to attend minyan or restrict myself to kosher food options, we often think, because Hashem wants me to perform those actions. This view certainly is well supported. In a shiur I heard about the development of halacha, Rabbi Zvi Sobolofsky explained that the rabbis know how to institute decrees because they understand (so to speak) what Hashem wants because they are so immersed in His Torah.
On the other hand, this mishnah seems to flip that paradigm on its head. Here, mitzvos are not something we do for Hashem, but something Hashem does for us. Hashem added more Torah and mitzvos so that we could benefit from them.
The gemara illustrates this concept with respect to the prohibition against consuming blood: Blood is thoroughly unappetizing to most, and people, in general, avoid consuming it. Nevertheless, Hashem commands us to avoid blood, thereby crediting us with a mitzvah we would have performed regardless.
Hashem engineers His world and the events in it to give us mitzvos and the opportunity to perform them.
This inversion of how we understand the role of mitzvos in our lives is reminiscent of a similarly counterintuitive reading of the purpose of the Exodus from Egypt. As we read on the night of the seder, we carry out the Pesach seder because of what Hashem did for us in taking us out of Egypt (Shemos 13:8). However, the Ibn Ezra notes that the Hebrew grammar of the verse is seemingly backward: Instead of reading “zeh ba’avor asah Hashem li,” “this [matzah] is because of what Hashem did for me,” the verse begins, “ba’avor zeh,” “because of this [matzah].” The Ibn Ezra argues that Hashem took us out of Egypt for the sake of the mitzvah of matzah, not the other way around as we commonly understand it. When Hashem took the Jewish people out of Egypt, He changed the trajectory of world history just so we can gain merit from one more mitzvah.
From these two examples — the mishnah’s reasoning for the prohibition against blood and the Ibn Ezra’s understanding of purpose of the Exodus — we can understand that Hashem engineers His world and the events in it to give us mitzvos and the opportunity to perform them. Perhaps, then, it makes sense for us to modify our behavior a little bit as well. If He is willing to go to such great lengths for our growth, it seems worthwhile for us to take that step and integrate some of His mitzvos into our day-to-day lives.