Ibn Ezra: The Purpose of Mitzvah

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim & Howard Salamon

Ibn Ezra, Exod. 31:18

Brainless people wonder what Moses was doing on Mount Sinai 40 days and 40 nights! And they don’t know if he stood there with God this amount of time. [And even if you] greatly multiply this duration [that Moses stood on Sinai] he could not know [even] one housandth of God’s works and His ways and the fundamentals of all mitzvahs that God commanded Moses! [Brainless people wonder this] for they think that the “performance” [of mitzvah] is the essence. But this is not true; rather [the essence of mitzvah] is the “heart” [human intent]. [So be aware] that the actions, thoughts and speech [commanded by mitzvah] are merely to make one fluent [in following the laws]. And accordingly, it is written, “It is in your mouth and in your heart to perform it”, and so have our early [Sages] said, “God desires one’s heart.” 

And the root of all mitzvahs culminates in loving God with all one’s soul and clinging to Him. But this cannot be complete if one does not recognize God’s works in the higher creations and in the lower ones, and in knowing His ways. And accordingly the prophet said, “Only in this shall the praiser praise himself: become wise and know Me.” Then it will be clarified to him, “that God performs kindness, justice and charity in the land.” But one cannot know God if he does not know his own inclination, his soul and his body. For anyone who does not know the nature of his soul, what wisdom does he have?

And behold, Moses who prophesied 40 years in the desert and grasped great principles that God revealed to him on Mount Sinai, and yet, he said before his death, “You have only begun to show Your servant Your greatness.” And behold now [even at that time] He [only] began to show him the greatness of God.  [Bracketed words added for clarification]

Ibn Ezra describes a phenomenon equally applicable to today’s Jew. Jews get caught up in the “performance” of mitzvahs, and not with understanding their profound lessons and the human perfection God truly intends. Yes, God gives us commands, and we must act…but we act only in order that we become fluent in the “laws,” the ideas. Our acts are targeting a greater good. God does not merely desire the physical activities of waving a Lulav, wearing Tefillin, reciting Kiddush or giving charity. “God desires one’s heart.” That is, God wants his human creations to perform mitzvahs because they understand the principles behind the mitzvahs, and value them as precious truths. Performance is merely the barometer of one’s conviction and also to regulate our fluency in their laws. But it is the conviction in the mitzvah’s idea that is the goal of the mitzvahs. 

The gift of intelligence is precisely in order to arrive at ever-growing knowledge of God and His ways. Had action alone been all God desired, the intellect’s amazing capabilities would be of no use. Furthermore, the tapping of the intellect’s potential cannot be accomplished through simple action. Mitzvah requires great thought, and that’s why Moses stood on Sinai with God for over a month, awake, day and night. 

Brainless people wonder what took so long for Moses to descend Mount Sinai. “All he had to do was learn how to perform the mitzvahs, and then come back down the mountain,” they think. They doubt Moses even needed 40 days! But as Ibn Ezra teaches, Moses could spend numerous years in communion with God and not even scratch the surface of God’s knowledge.

Ibn Ezra’s Formulation

He commences with a critique: people think action—and nothing more—is the goal of the mitzvahs. What causes a person to gravitate to the mitzvah’s performance, and not go further? What prevents one from unraveling the clues in the mitzvah’s design, and arrive at the fundamentals? Ibn Ezra immediately alerts us, “There’s so many fundamentals and profound ideas, that even after 40 years, Moses barely scratched the surface.” This was Moses’ own admission. This will impact people and drive them to seek the lessons of the mitzvahs. 

The error of preoccupation with performance, is due to our sensual nature, which has a head start over our intellects. “For the inclination of man’s heart is evil from youth” (Gen. 8:21).  Our instincts are with us from birth, but our intellects develop slowly, over many years. Most people find great difficulty controlling—and certainly abandoning—a sensual lifestyle. And when confronted with Torah obligation, people attach themselves to the components that are sensual, meaning the physical act. Since they have followed a lifestyle rooted in the senses alone, and not intellect, they view Torah and mitzvahs from their senses, not their intellects. They don’t live in their intellects, but in their instincts, so all is filtered through their instincts. Mitzvahs, then, are treated identically: whatever does not touch their instincts and senses, is ignored. Therefore, all they sense is the act of mitzvah, and they ignore the mitzvah’s laws and halachas that point to immense insight. 

This is the flaw Ibn Ezra wishes to correct with this commentary. He appropriately refers to such people as “brainless” (literally “empty-brained”) as an indication that this core faculty of intelligence is not engaged, when it truly should be.

He then addresses the obvious question: If performance is not the goal, why are mitzvahs relegated to thought, speech and action, which are performances? He answers that this is to accustom us, for repeated behavior conditions a person in a desired path, and rehearses the laws. He validates this with this verse, “It is in your mouth and in your heart to perform it” (Deut. 30:14), but then qualifies the true goal with the Rabbis’ words, “God desires one’s heart (Tal. Sanh. 106b)”  based on God’s words to Samuel, “Man sees with the eyes, but God sees the heart” (I Samuel 16:7).  This verse also validates our idea that man is primarily sensual, “seeing with his eyes” and not looking into another person’s heart and motives, like God does.

Next, Ibn Ezra explains why performance cannot be the end goal…

Loving God

This—Ibn Ezra teaches—is the goal of the mitzvahs. But what is the meaning of “loving God”? How is this mitzvah performed? How does one “love” God, when we don’t know what He truly is? 

Maimonides explains that one’s love of God is in direct proportion to his or her knowledge of God (Hilchos Teshuva 10:10). Thus, love of God equates to “appreciating God’s wisdom.” The more one studies God’s creations and Torah, the greater is his or her love of God. And although we cannot love God Himself, we are drawn to the Source of the wisdom and the goodness we witness in creation and Torah. This is what we call love of God. 

Ibn Ezra quotes Jeremiah 9:22,23, teaching that man’s true praise is not based on his morality, strength, or wealth. Rather, a person is praiseworthy only if he becomes wise and knows God. Read that again…he must “become wise” and know God. This means that one must study. Why? Because the mere performance of mitzvah is not the goal. One must study and learn if he or she is to uncover the brilliance of true Torah values. It is not the performance alone that God desires, but man’s heart, his “understanding” and “intent”. One can go through the motions, but this does not reflect on one’s inner recognition of the mitzvahs’ true messages. A man or woman has not perfected themselves by performance alone. Perfection is achieved only when one recognizes a truth, and values it enough to act on it. The act, then, is a barometer of one’s conviction. But it is the intellectual conviction that God wants…“God wants the heart”. 

And this is so sensible, since man’s true essence is his intelligence; the faculty that distinguishes him over all other creations. It is then his intelligence that is his true worth. Animals can perform actions. But it is man alone who can recognize his Creator, and uncover His brilliance. Thus, actions are not our mark of distinction: it is our capacity to become wise through understanding the perfection and design of the universe and the mitzvahs, thereby attesting to those truths. 

System of Knowing God

Ibn Ezra then teaches that man must first recognize God as the creator of what is above. This gives man the perspective that the universe and literally all that is, exists only due to a Creator. Once man recognizes God as “creator,” meaning the exclusive “cause” of everything, he must also know how God “governs” His creations. This is what is meant by knowing the “lower ones,” meaning man. We must know that, “God performs kindness, justice and charity in the land.” And these are valued only if we understand our design: our instincts, soul and our body, as Ibn Ezra states. By understanding man’s psychological, intellectual and bodily designs, only then do we learn what are man’s needs, purposes and qualities, their hierarchy, and how God supplies these through acts that we call kind, just and charitable. Our appreciation for God’s provision of food, clothing, and shelter grants us one level of appreciation for God. But as we study man’s internal world, we learn of the multifaceted psyche, and how Torah laws guide us to a measured lifestyle that keep all drives in check, and enable us to grow intellectually and morally through the myriad of other laws and their designs. And with our study of the universe and of the Torah’s halachic and philosophical systems, our minds find the greatest pleasure unraveling marvels and deep insights that fill us with the greatest experiences. Through study, we recognize God as creator and governor. And as we grow in our learning of God’s creations and government of man, our appreciation (love) for God grows proportionately. 

A Kind, Just and Charitable God

It is vital at this point to understand why God is all three: kind, just and charitable. On Jeremiah 9:23, Radak defines these three traits. Kindness is excessive goodness performed for another being, and has two expressions: 1) goodness performed for one who has no claim on you; 2) and goodness that is over and above what is due to another who has a claim on you. Charity is the act of giving another whatever it needs, as in food for the hungry and clothes for the naked. And justice is meting out reward or punishment depending on the person’s merits and sins. 

Justice is applicable to humans alone. The former two also apply in some measure to animals. None apply to inanimate beings.

Why are all these qualities necessary? It is because the needs of living beings vary. And as God is perfectly good, His response to varying needs varies. At times, a being only requires nourishment; God’s providence for this is called righteousness. But at times, people require more than what meets their basic needs, due to emotional issues for example. Therefore, an added attentive measure called kindness is required to set such a soul on a path of happiness and equilibrium. For example, a depressed person will need additional attention and patience as compared to others who are functioning with normal optimism. And when one is evil, justice is required to correct that person or society, or to deter others.

It is only through understanding a spectrum of God’s ways that we can accurately appreciate each mitzvah, through understanding its insights and ramifications. If one is devoid of knowledge of God, his charity misses the mark, for he does not view charity as a means to set a person on a good path, in order to love God. He simply views it economically, not in connection with God. And this is not the mitzvah of charity. And if a person lives in accord with strict justice alone, and does not bend with the needs of the needy, he is not acting as God acts. For he allows his emotional temperament to dictate his acts, when he really should determine his acts based on God’s values. And at times, this means we forgo what makes us comfortable, in order that another human being might find happiness.

As you can see, Ibn Ezra is correct…we can discuss God’s mitzvahs for 40 days or even 40 years and not scratch the surface! This explains why the Talmud and Shulchan Aruch are so lengthy.

The Fundamental

Ibn Ezra takes us through a sequence of considerations in order to fully explain the goal of mitzvahs; that being the love of God. He informs us that aside from understanding a given mitzvah, we must possess the additional knowledge of God as both the creator and governor.  And we must also understand the human being. This knowledge forms the crucial backdrop to understand all mitzvahs. If one waves the Lulav in all directions, without knowing God alone created produce, he misses the entire point of Lulav, which is our thanks for produce to the God who alone governs the heavens and Earth, and all of man’s Earthly activities. If one wears Tefillin but does not know that we thereby attest to God’s exclusive reign over Egypt and all natural laws, and no other powers exists, we again miss the purpose of this mitzvah, commanded right after the 10 Plagues. And if one prays to God but thinks, “God is physically inside me,” and He is not the metaphysical being He truly is, one is not praying to God, but to his fantasy. And fantasies cannot respond to your prayers. Knowing our human design psychologically and philosophically, we appreciate how each mitzvah perfects us. 

These insights must renew in us all a fresh perspective on mitzvahs, that will grant us true appreciation for the laws, but mostly, a love for the Creator’s wisdom, and for His goodness in benefitting man through His gift of Torah.