Mitzvot: A Mitzvah Is a Commandment
And it is not just 613 mitzvot that we are talking about! Even after the historical era of the Hebrew Bible, generations of rabbis continued to update, adapt, and generate new, more modern commandments--all understood to be derived from the original 613 in the Torah. Today, Jews no longer practice animal sacrifices or give agricultural gifts to a hereditary class of priests--yet there are modern mitzvot (often the subject of ideological controversy) that deal with questions relating to organ donation, the kashrut (fitness for eating) of organic fruits and vegetables, and interfaith relations. Mitzvot deal with every aspect of how one should go about leading a Jewish life.
The Torah itself does not offer many enlightened reasons, but generally explains that the Jewish people should observe the mitzvot simply because God commanded us to do so, or because of the potential negative consequences that would result from non-compliance. Other thinkers have endeavored to prove that the mitzvot are all completely rational, logical actions which any moral and ethical people would welcome. Still others claim that the commandments actually improve us as human beings, refining us as upright and just people, or that doing God’s commandments actually has a cosmic effect upon the spiritual fabric of all creation. And some thinkers even reject the importance of asking this question entirely, arguing that the only legitimate reason for the performance of mitzvot is in order to obey God’s commandments and fulfill our part in the covenant between God and the Jewish people.
Some people observe the mitzvot because it helps them to identify and feel a part of the larger Jewish community, others because they believe themselves to be commanded to do so, and still others simply because it is pleasurable, a joy, to celebrate the Jewish holidays and home rituals. But whatever reason motivates someone to observe the commandments is, in Jewish tradition, less important than the actual doing of the mitzvot themselves--one might say that the “deed” is more important than the “creed.” That is, how we behave in this world, towards our fellow human beings and the world we live in, is ultimately of more importance than what we may believe. In the final analysis, the mitzvot are a uniquely Jewish approach to living a holy life in this world.
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