Mitzvah’s True Worth

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Ibn Ezra on Exod. 31:18:

Brainless people ask, “What did Moses do on the mount for forty days and forty nights?” They do not know that if Moses doubled and quadrupled his years with God, he would barely know one thousandth of God’s work and ways and the secret of all the precepts which God commanded him! 

People think that actions are most important [so Moses could have learned all Torah’s required actions in a few days. He did not nee 40 days, they think].  This is not so. What is important is [not mechanical action, but ] heart together with deed. Heart and tongue train a person [to observe the commandments]. We thus read, “It is in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it” (Deut. 30:14). Our ancients said, “God desires the heart.” Loving God and cleaving to Him with all of one’s soul is the basis of the commandments. This cannot be completely accomplished if a person does not know the ways of the Lord and is not acquainted with God’s work in the upper and lower worlds. [Actions alone cannot accomplish this.] The prophet thus states, “But let him that glories, glory in this, that he understands and knows Me” (Jer. 9:23). It will then become clear to a person that God exercises mercy, justice, and righteous, in the earth (Ibid.). 

A person cannot know God if he does not know his own spirit, soul, and body. For of what use is a person’s wisdom to him if he does not know the makeup of his soul? Now Moses, who prophesied in the desert for forty years and was party to many secrets which God revealed to him on Mount Sinai, said before his death, “O Lord God, Thou hast begun to show Thy servant Thy greatness” (Deut. 3:24). Thus it was only then that Moses first began to understand God’s greatness and that the Lord’s greatness was shown to him. This is truth, for His greatness is unsearchable (Psalms 145:3). 

Ibn Ezra stresses human error: people think the objective of Torah is action, performing the commands. As most people are more attached to the physical, they elevate the importance of physicality and activity. But in fact, Ibn Ezra teaches what is most important is the heart: intellectual and emotional conviction. Man's perfection is achieved only through his highest element, his soul. Mechanical performance is quite easy. But grasping God's wisdom takes time and the greater capacity of intellect. 

Ibn Ezra refers to the “upper and lower worlds”: the metaphysical world of wisdom and God's providence, and how they relate to the lower physical world and mankind. Without understanding this reality, a person cannot know the ways of God. We must know “that God exercises mercy, justice, and righteous, in the earth.” That is: God and His Providence and laws in the upper world relate to man in the lower world. 

He then says, “A person cannot know God if he does not know his own spirit, soul, and body. For of what use is a person’s wisdom to him if he does not know the makeup of his soul?”  Here, Ibn Ezra teaches a great fundamental: without our appreciation of our design, psychologically, intellectually, metaphysically and bodily, we cannot appreciate God's plan for man, because we do not know what “man” is. Only after study of man's full design can a person appreciate God's plan for mankind. But with ignorance of what we are, we assume what is most important are simple mechanical acts of mitzvah. And [people erroneously think] Moses could have learned all 613 commands in a few days, if that's all there was to Torah.

Thus, Ibn Ezra’s answer to “Brainless people asking what Moses did forty days and nights”  is the following, by way of example: 

Kosher is not simply abstaining from eating certain species of animals. This is a “brainless” approach limiting Kosher law to simple, mechanical performance. In fact, Torah provides tremendous details. It distinguishes the terms “impure” relating to beasts, from the term “loathsome” regarding insects and crawlers. Something about creeping animals requires our attention. Most animal features indicating dietary prohibition are found in the animals’ modes of movement, such as multiple legs, belly crawlers, hoofs, fins, claws, creeping, and paws. Torah separates beast classifications: some requiring “split hoofs” to be edible, and “pawed” animals indicating prohibition. What's the difference between a paw and a hoof? This too is a clue. And a glaring omission is that Kosher does not apply at all to vegetation, only animals. Why? 

All these details clearly show a thinking person that Kosher is not simply about dietary restriction. God is teaching us that there's something about animal life that presents a danger, whereas vegetation does not have this danger. What is this danger? That the signs are found in the animals’ mode of “locomotion” reveals which aspect of animals presents the problem, whereas vegetation does not. What is that aspect? See last week’s Jewishtimes (#636) for greater elaboration on Kosher. But for this essay’s purpose, we appreciate that simple, mechanical activity is not God’s objective for man. That is brainless. Rather, God desires our hearts and souls to investigate His generous clues that reveal His brilliance, the true benefit of Kosher. This is the purpose of all commands. The vast scope of Torah is further expressed in volumes of Oral Law requiring decades to master.

This is why, had Moses stayed in communion with God—even doubling or quadrupling his time—he would not grasp even one thousandth of God’s wisdom. 

Finally, perhaps Ibn Ezra was very select with his word “brainless” to indicate Torah’s purpose is intellect, not action. It is precisely those people who do not use their brains, who lack the appreciation of the commands.