By Rabbi Aron Tendler
Does knowing the reason for a specific mitzvah motivate the performance of
that mitzvah? I would think that it depends on the mitzvah. Tzedaka, for
example, is greatly affected by reason.
1. If we accept that G-d administrates His world by giving some people more
and some people less, with the intent of the more sharing with the less, then
giving 10% of our income to Tzedaka is much easier. "I am not giving away
what is mine, I am giving away that which G-d entrusted to me to give to
2. If we further understand that G-d organized His world in this manner so
that humans would have the chance to emulate His ways and thereby become
closer to Him by being more like Him, then the mitzvah is even more enticing.
3. If we grasp that the essence of our existence is to be as close to G-d as
humanly possible, and emulating G-d by doing acts of Chesed is the truest way
of doing so, then the mitzvah of Tzedaka becomes among the simplest ways to
justify our place and purpose in the universe.
However, the truth is that most of us give Tzedaka because we are emotionally
moved to do so. Imagine if we lived in a community where no one was poor,
the Yeshivas had no deficits, our addresses and phone numbers weren't listed,
and our homes were not on the Mishulachim circuit. Would we still give
Tdzedaka? And if yes, would we give nearly as much as we often feel
compelled to do? Personally, I do not think so.
If it is true that reasons alone do not motivate us to perform Mitzvos- even
those like charity that are "humanistic and obvious" - then we will certainly
not feel compelled to do those Mitzvos that are purely religious or
ceremonial and do not provide an obvious social benefit. For example, the
mitzvah of Shatnez. "Do not wear wool and linen together in a single
garment" (22:11) How many of us, men and women, are careful to have our
garments tested for Shatnez? From a purely legal point of view, wearing
Shatnez is as serious a transgression as eating non-kosher! Yet, many
self-proclaimed religionist who would never consider eating anything but
kosher, have never had their clothing checked for Shatnez!
All Mitzvos, besides their obvious or less than obvious logic, have a
symbolic value. Tzedaka, besides providing for the needy, symbolically
represents the manner in which G-d relates to all of us. "Just as He is
merciful, so too must you be merciful". Therefore, giving Tzedaka is not
just a way to be compassionate and caring for the needy and less fortunate.
It teaches us that, "there but for the grace of G-d go I." What we each have
and claim as our own is as much a divine handout to us as the coin we deposit
in a tin cup is to a blind man.
History has shown time and time again that human nature is oriented toward
symbols. Symbols express our deepest felt convictions and beliefs and give
form and substance to our most profound emotions. Therefore, understanding
the symbolic value of a Mitzvah can often be a powerful motivator.
I would like to offer a possible explanation for the mitzvah of Shatnez, and
maybe, just maybe, motivate a greater performance of its demands.
Wool and linen each symbolize an attitudinal approach toward G-d that are
equally valid, yet potentially opposing or contradictory. It suggests that
the two attitudes must be seen as apart from each other, and that the
contrast between the two can teach us how we should relate to G-d. As part
of Moshe's farewell discourse to the Jewish people, Moshe forewarned the
nation to always be cognizant of their absolute dependency upon G-d. While
in the desert, their dependency upon G-d was self-evident. Their food,
water, and protection were clearly, "divine handouts." However, once they
entered into Eretz Yisroel, their sustenance would be "as all the other
To the discerning eye, nature is as much a revelation of G-d's mastery as was
Manna. Therefore, as Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explained, G-d commanded us
to say a blessing specifically after eating bread because bread symbolizes
man's ingenuity and innovation over nature. By saying Birkat Hamazon (Grace
After Meals) we remind ourselves that "man does not live by bread alone." We
survive and prosper because of a direct, although covert, divine handout.
Regardless of our individual initiative, ingenuity, and participation, our
successes are an expression of G-d's benevolence toward us, and our
dependency upon Him.
I would like to suggest that the mitzvah of Shatnez symbolizes the struggle
we each have in accepting G-d's absolute mastery over our lives, and our
complete dependency. Wool represents G-d's overt presence in all our
endeavors and our dependency upon Him. Linen represents our tendency to take
personal credit for our successes while denying or limiting G-d's primary
involvement and responsibility.
In the story of Kayin (Cain) and Hevel (Able), the Torah emphasized their
individual occupations. Kayin was a farmer and Hevel was a shepherd. The
mere mention of their occupations suggests that we are being offered an
insight into the workings of the human mind and heart. Hevel (futility -
nothingness) as his name implies, recognized the physical world as a means
toward the greater end of serving G-d. In and of itself, the universe has no
value or relevance. Only in relation to recognizing and serving the Creator
does the physical world attain significance.
It was clear to Hevel that all success and accomplishment must be attributed
directly to G-d and not to self. Therefore, Hevel chose to be a shepherd. A
shepherd is a caretaker. He oversees his flock protecting them from predators
and leading them to green pastures. The extent of his success depends upon
the strength and growth of the flock. If the sheep are fertile the shepherd's
wealth increases. His success or failure depends almost entirely on the
workings of nature and the not so covert hand of G-d. If there is plentiful
pasture the flocks will be properly nurtured, if not they starve. As such,
the shepherd's work is a constant reinforcement of his dependency upon G-d
and His benevolence.
On the other hand, Kayin, whose name implied a partnership between Chava and
G-d in Kayin's birth, ("I have gained a man with G-d". Ber.4:1)chose to be a
farmer. A farmer appears to wage a daily battle with the forces of nature in
order to prepare, plant, cultivate, and harvest his crops. His successes,
although equally as dependent as the shepherd upon the not so covert hand of
G-d, provide him with the rational for taking personal credit for the
successes. His efforts and hard work make him minimally a partner with G-d
in the outcome. As such, the farmer's work constantly challenges the
acceptance of his total dependency upon G-d and His benevolence.
Therefore, Kayin, who as his name implied, struggled with the issue of his
dependency upon G-d, chose farming as his occupation.
In truth, we are supposed to rise to the challenge and see G-d's mastery in
all of our endeavors. Therefore, upon entering Eretz Yisroel, the Jewish
people were destined to become farmers. The farmer who attributes all his
successes to G-d's benevolence is far stronger in his acceptance of his
dependency upon G-d than the shepherd who has avoided the challenge by virtue
of his occupation. In order to make it easier for the Jews to overcome
Kayin's fatal flaw, G-d commanded us many Mitzvos that are directed toward
farming and agriculture. These Mitzvos, (eg. Shmitah, Yovel, Trumah, Maaser,
Bikurim, Kilayim, Likcha, Shikcha, Payah, etc.) provide a constant reminder
of our absolute dependency upon G-d, regardless of our hard work and effort.
The contrast between Kayin the farmer, and Hevel the shepherd, highlights our
constant struggle in accepting the degree of our dependency upon G-d.
(Remember: If I accept the totality of my dependency I should feel obligated
to follow G-d's laws. By denying the dependency I avoid the sense of
obligation.) Wool comes from sheep and linen from flax. Wool represents
Hevel the shepherd, and linen represents Kayin the farmer. By commanding us
to not wear Shatnez, a mixture of wool and linen, G-d reminds us of the
constant struggle that we each have in accepting our dependency upon Him and
following His Torah.
Copyright © 1998 by Rabbi Aron Tendler
and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is Rabbi of Shaarey Zedek Congregation,
Valley Village, CA.