For the week ending 23 May 2020 / 29 Iyyar 5780

The "Mitzvah System"

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Gregory from Milwaukee, WI wrote:

Dear Rabbi,

I am taking a class at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, so that I can better understand Judaism. My question for you is this: Why is the mitzvah system (by mitzvah system, I mean the 613 commandments that Jews are obligated to observe) considered so important? It has not been my experience that these commandments carry the same significance in other religions as in Judaism. Thank you.

Dear Gregory,

G-d gave the 613 commandments to our nation at Mount Sinai. They are so important because they are "the King's decrees."

Let me explain with a parable. Imagine that the president calls you to his office and gives you 10 million dollars and a strange gadget. He tells you to take the gadget home, put it by the open window and turn it on every day between four and five in the afternoon, and that it's a matter of national security. He tells you that the 10 million is yours so long as you continue to do your task faithfully every day. You would certainly do it, even though you didn't understand why, because you know that the president has access to special information and technology that you don't have. You would feel sure that somehow this gadget has some function that, even though you don't understand it, is crucial for national security.

So too, even though we don't understand the ultimate reason for all the commandments, but since G-d Himself told us to do them and told us that they are so important, we certainly believe Him. He took us out of slavery in Egypt and gave us the Land of Israel in order for us to do the commandments. As the Torah says regarding the laws of keeping kosher, we should do the commandments, "Because I am the L-rd your G-d, Who raised you up out of the land of Egypt to be your G-d." (Leviticus 11:45)

We are not to "pick and choose," but rather to do all the commandments, as G-d said: "You shall observe all My statutes and all My laws and do them, so that the Land to which I am bringing you to settle upon will not vomit you out." (Leviticus 20:22) We see from this verse that our national security in the Land of Israel depends on our observing these laws. Not only that, but they are also our ticket to life in the Next World, as the verse says, "You shall keep My statutes and My laws, which a person will do them and live eternal life through them." (Leviticus 18:5)

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