What’s the point of the mitzvot? Is the Torah just the mother of all Powerpoint presentations, a 613-item bullet list that we have to check off unthinkingly, item by item? Or can we learn a deeper message from the commandments?
A classic example from this week’s parasha:
And we will be referring to a similar halacha in Vayikra:
Why should we send away the mother bird? Do we feel sorry for her? The Mishna seems to address this:
First, what is קנאה במעשה בראשית? I don’t think that we are concerned that the lizards will hear our prayer about the birds and get jealous. I think the problem is picking our praises of ה׳ from an infinite list, as the gemara goes on to say:
But be that as it may, the Rambam brings the second opinion l’halacha:
Which would seem to settle the question. But the idea that the halacha has no discernable reason, contradicts many commentators, including the Rambam himself in the מורה נבוכים:
And the Rambam expands this concept, “If the Law provides that such grief should not be caused to cattle or birds, how much more careful must we be that we should not cause grief to our fellowmen”, in Hichot Deot:
So how to resolve the contradiction? The Tosphot Yom Tov on our Mishna suggests that there is a difference between davening and learning:
Tefillah is when we throw ourselves before the Al-mighty; it is a time for אמונה פשוטה, not for theological or philosophical discussions. We do not analyze the reasons for G-d’s commands then; we simply accept them as they are. But there is a place for that kind of analysis (for instance, 45 minutes before davening…). There’s a great quote from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz that I am sure I have read but I can’t find it, so either he actually said it or I am making it up. Just substitute my name for his and it’s still a good point. He was once discussing כוונה and the meaning of the davening with another rabbi, who talked about his thoughts during שמנה עשרה. He (the other rabbi) would think about the nature of ה׳ and what divinity really means, very deep concepts, and Rabbi Steinsaltz interrupted him, “That’s for the cholent on Shabbos afternoon! During davening you just think about davening!” [Well after I gave this shiur, I found my source: Rabbi Shalom Carmy’s masterful essay, Without Intelligence, Whence Prayer?, Tradition 37:1, p. 3]
The Ramban has a different approach to this mitzvah:
The difference between the Rambam and the Ramban is subtle but important. For the Ramban, the commandments not to be cruel to animals is not out of concern for the animals themselves, but to prevent us from becoming cruel to other human beings. This has contemporary implications. In a post on Hirhurim called “Is Vegetarianism Dangerous?”, Rabbi Gil Student discusses Rav Kook’s approach to being a vegetarian. While he (Rav Kook) felt that not eating meat is the messianic ideal, focusing on the rights of animals in this, imperfect, world is a dangerous thing:
The danger is not in being a vegetarian, but in a philosophy that equates the rights of animals with those of people. The 2003 ad campaign by PETA equating the treatment of animals with the Holocaust makes true evil seem “insignificant and banal”. Instead of having the mitzvot sensitize us to understanding G-d’s will and true morality, we run the risk of losing all sensitivity and meaning.