Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reward and Punishment: Reality or Myth? Zechor Yemot Olam.

As I was discussing reward and punishment in my last post, I would like to share some thoughts on the subject.

The idea that there are consequences to all our actions is something that is accepted by most of us as an axiom that we acquire growing up. However, we do not always see the outcome from our deeds. Sometimes consequences are immediate and at other times, they may take a long time to become manifest, at times even generations pass before the outcome(s) from an action can be known. Sometimes, the long-term outcome from an action that, at the time it was done looked to be good or bad, may turn out in the long term to have the opposite result of the intended outcome. The question that comes to mind then is, is this belief in consequences a myth or reality? I believe that looking at reward and punishment from this perspective, highlights why Rambam considers this to be a commanded belief rather than an empirical fact. It is listed among the 13 principles and is a necessary and required a-priori belief. Like all these principles, we have to accept them at first and then, as we acquire further knowledge about the world and our environment and how it operates, we develop a deeper understanding of exactly what they mean. A child’s understanding of God’s uniqueness is not the same as that of an adult especially one who has philosophic tendencies, nor is how a child understands reward and punishment the same as how an adult does. 

Assuming actions are judged by their consequences, there is a certain amount of prophecy required at the time the decision how to act correctly is made. Prophecy in this instance being the ability to understand how God’s world operates and adapt one’s actions to conform to His original will. That is exactly how Rambam understands Hashgacha – Divine Providence. The closer a person is to prophecy, the more he acts in a way that agrees with Divine Providence – Hashgacha. Is a person ever certain about his actions? Of course not: even the greatest prophets doubted themselves and constantly questioned their decisions. We see this with Avraham, the first to have developed a philosophy about God and how he runs His world. As we are introduced to him in Breishit 12, we immediately are told that his goal was to build a nation of believers.

ב  וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ, לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל, וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ, וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ; וֶהְיֵה, בְּרָכָה.

2 And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing.

And a little further, in Breishit 15 he questions himself and falls into a great depression fearing that he did not act correctly, that he misunderstood how things work.

א  אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה,
הָיָה דְבַר-יְהוָה אֶל-אַבְרָם, בַּמַּחֲזֶה, לֵאמֹר:  אַל-תִּירָא
אַבְרָם, אָנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ--שְׂכָרְךָ, הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד.

1 After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying: 'Fear not, Abram, I am thy shield, thy reward shall be exceeding great.

וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם, אֲדֹנָי יְהוִה מַה-תִּתֶּן-לִי, וְאָנֹכִי,
הוֹלֵךְ עֲרִירִי; וּבֶן-מֶשֶׁק בֵּיתִי, הוּא דַּמֶּשֶׂק אֱלִיעֶזֶר.

2 And Abram said: 'O Lord GOD, what wilt Thou give me, seeing I go hence childless, and he that shall be possessor of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?'

  וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם--הֵן לִי, לֹא נָתַתָּה זָרַע; וְהִנֵּה בֶן-בֵּיתִי, יוֹרֵשׁ אֹתִי.

 3 And Abram said: 'Behold, to me Thou hast given no seed, and, lo, one born in my house is to be mine heir.'

Avraham was questioning whether he was living in a fantasy, as he was childless and he was unsure that Eliezer, his sole inheritor at the time, could be the biological father of such a nation. As he meditated further on the matter, he came to realize that if one acts to the best of his knowledge with the goals clearly in mind, one must believe that there will be a good outcome. That is the crux of the belief in Reward and Punishment.

 וְהֶאֱמִן, בַּיהוָה; וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ, צְדָקָה.

6 And he believed in the LORD; and He counted it to him for righteousness.

Rambam in MN 3:53 discusses the meaning of the word צְדָקָה .

The term edakah is derived from edek, "righteousness"; it denotes the act of giving every one his due, and of showing kindness to every being according as it deserves.”

In other words, צְדָקָה has two meanings, one ethical the other moral:  giving someone what is due to him, an ethical obligation, and charity, a moral obligation.  

In Scripture, however, the expression edakah is not used in the first sense, and does not apply to the payment of what we owe to others…. But we do perform an act of edakah when we fulfill those duties towards our fellow-men which our moral conscience imposes upon us; e.g., when we heal the wound of the sufferer….Thus Scripture says, in reference to the returning of the pledge [to the poor debtor]: "And it shall be edakah (righteousness) unto thee" (Deut. xxiv. 11).”

When the word צְדָקָה is used in Torah, it is used in its moral sense rather than its ethical one. Returning collateral to a poor debtor is a moral obligation, not an ethical one. The true understanding of moral obligation in Judaism comes from contemplating how God runs His world. Judaism understands God as an entity that is completely separate from any physicality yet at the same time sees Him as the Creator responsible for existence. That existence in itself is seen as charity; there is no obligation for God to bring us into existence. Charity is thus an act of emulating God once one has apprehended this concept. Charity is therefore a rational and knowledge based act rather than an emotional one. The natural emotions that charity triggers are controlled and induced by the rational faculty. 
When we walk in the way of virtue we act righteously towards our intellectual faculty, and pay what is due unto it; and because every virtue is thus edakah, Scripture applies the term to the virtue of faith in God. Comp. "And he believed in the Lord, and he accounted it to him as righteousness" (Gen. xv. 6); "And it shall be our righteousness" (Deut. vi. 25).”  

This to me is one of the most amazing and inspiring comments of Rambam. Charity, the one described above, which is based on knowledge and not on pure emotion, benefits not only our fellow man, the recipient of that charity, but also the giver who arrived at this act through developing his rational faculty. The two benefits are independent of each other. One does charity with oneself by developing the mind and actualizing the rational faculty. It is this charity that Avraham did to himself by believing that by emulating God’s ways the way he understood them, a good outcome was to be expected. It is the belief that “good” actions bring about “good” consequences that allows us to act. Without that acceptance, we would be paralyzed. Is that belief really true or is it just a utilitarian belief?  We believe it is real and we stake our whole raison d’etre on it. It is at the root of how we understand ourselves as the standard-bearers of true monotheism to the world. Our long-term survival as a nation working towards perfecting ourselves proves it. It proves that the “good” deeds and plans for us started with Avraham and his children, the divine Torah Moshe gave us and the way of life it set out for us, were really “good” by accomplishing their intent. Their influence of so many thousands of years is still very much felt in the here and now. That is how I understand when we invoke the memory of our ancestors, the Avot, during prayer; we say that by our mere continued existence we confirm that they read correctly God’s will.

Moadim Lesimcha and Chag Sameach.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Is Reward And Punishment A True or A Necessary Belief? Musings on MN 3:28.

The end goal of Torah and Mitzvot is to create a society with great knowledge of their environment and through that knowledge develop an understanding of God and His ways fulfilling their role in existence by emulating Him. This society will bring along the rest of humanity to the same developed state. If we look back at the history of the human species, we have evolved from a hunter-gatherer society where immediate survival was the central focus of day-to-day life into a (relatively) technologically advanced one. This evolution took many millennia, was gradual with many hiccups and regressions along the way with humanity still a long way from having fulfilled its potential.

We know that early man was baffled by his environment and completely at the mercy of it. His understanding was guided by his imagination as there were no tools available to perform any experiments that would provide empirical data. Man developed a theological system based on imaginary myths that tried to explain his existence. Those myths developed into a complicated system of gods,  some benevolent others malevolent, operating on a reciprocal approach where these gods were to be mollified and bribed if man wanted to be saved from their wrath or deserve their munificence. This system based on imagination created societies with hierarchies of slave and ruler abetted by priests who preyed on their fears presenting themselves as “god specialists” who knew how to bribe and manipulate the deities. Having sunk into this system based on imagination, humanity needed to expend great effort to break away from it and begin looking objectively at the world so that it could develop and become more than just another animal species amongst many. The Torah and its Mitzvot is the tool given to us, Jews, by HKBH to help us pull out from these ages of intellectual darkness and bring humanity along with us. In a macro sense, the Torah has three categories of Mitzvot: (i) Societal Law, (ii) Guide for Self-Improvement and (iii) Intellectual/Theological Teachings. The first two categories are focused on our physical well-being so that we can dedicate ourselves to the third category which is the ultimate objective.

“The general object of the Law is twofold: the well-being of the soul and the well-being of the body… The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first by removing all violence from our midst: that is to say, that we do not do every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state.” (MN3:27)

The societal laws can be summarized as “do not unto your friend what you would not do unto yourself”. In other words, there are obvious consequences to how we act with each other. Society operates on a reciprocal basis where generally we react in kind to kindness, fairness, nastiness and injustice. Narcissism and selfishness are at the root of the latter two and controlling our natural impulses is the key to controlling these inclinations. Looked at from this perspective, reward and punishment are natural outcomes of ethics and morals or the lack thereof.  One does not need to be a scientist or a philosopher to grasp this concept of reward and punishment. In fact, every child is taught that there are consequences to his actions whether explicitly or implicitly and it is a key component of education.

On the other hand, when it comes to intellectual development, the process is long and arduous. One cannot teach Algebra, to someone who has not mastered basic arithmetic or any other advanced theory in any science without having understood the basics. Correct theology is based on correct science. Rambam teaches that if we want to have a correct understanding of God and our existence in relation to Him, we must first have a good and correct grasp of all the sciences. Theology and science go hand in hand; they are not two disparate things, as many thinkers want us to believe.

“There may thus be a man who after having earnestly devoted many years to the pursuit of one science, and to the true understanding of its principles, till he is fully convinced of its truths, has obtained as the sole result of this study the conviction that a certain quality must be negated in reference to God, and the capacity of demonstrating that it is impossible to apply it to Him.” (MN1:59)

Myths are the antithesis to science. They offer alternate explanations based on imaginary fantasies for reality. For science to flourish, myths and idol worship, the practical outcome of myths, must be eradicated. Rambam sees Avodah Zara as falsehood. Eradication of falsehood is at the core of the prohibition to have anything to do with Avodah Zara. The Torah teaches that Avodah Zara leads humanity away from seeking the truth and thus away from God the ultimate Truth.

Teaching a developing society, one has no trouble discussing consequences. One can be explicit and describe consequences as reward and punishment. Although simplistic, reward and punishment lends itself to a presentation that allows for dual meanings: the simplistic obvious one and the more advanced and sophisticated understanding thereof. Both understandings are helpful for the promotion of responsible behavior, though the simplistic approach may be inaccurate at face value. From a practical standpoint, there is value in a detailed description of consequences for bad behavior and the Torah indeed repeats the concept many times in places in excruciating detail. 

However, teaching correct theology is impossible to a society that has not yet reached its ultimate perfection, never mind a primitive one at the start of its journey toward intellectual perfection. As long as a man has not grasped the sciences and all it means, he cannot really know God and Truth. He can be told that the goal, the end-purpose is to know God and he must learn all he can about the world he lives in to achieve that. The real meaning of knowing God however can only be pointed to, not taught.

“It is necessary to bear in mind that Law only teaches the chief points of those true principles which lead to the true perfection of man, and only demands in general terms faith in them. Thus, Scripture teaches the Existence, the Unity, the Omniscience, the Omnipotence, the Win, and the Eternity of God. All this is given in the form of final results, but they cannot be understood fully and accurately except after the acquisition of many kinds of knowledge.” (MN3:28)

However when it comes to reward and punishment, consequences –

“In the same way the Law also makes a call to adopt certain beliefs, belief in which is necessary for political welfare. Such is the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him, for it leads us to the fear and dread of disobedience [to the will of God]. There are other truths in reference to the whole of the Universe which form the substance of the various and many kinds of speculative sciences, and afford the means of verifying the above-mentioned principles as their final result. But Scripture does not so distinctly prescribe the belief in them as it does in the first case; it is implied in the commandment, "to love the Lord" (Deut. xi. 13).” (MN3:28)

Reward and punishment is presented in the Torah in its simplistic way, “the belief that God is angry with those who disobey Him”, and in great detail (see Vaykra 25:14-42 and Devarim 28:15-69) while theology is presented in a very limited and allusive way, “it is implied in the commandment, "to love the Lord"”.

When practical commands - Mitzvot – are given and their reason presented we have the same situation. The Mitzvot that have a theological underpinning, their reason is often omitted and if presented, they are only in an allusive way, while those that are societal, their reason and consequences for transgressing them, are laid out clearly.

“Consider what we said of Beliefs: In some cases the law contains a truth which is itself the only object of that law, as e.g., the truth of the Unity, Eternity, and Incorporeality of God. In other cases, that belief is necessary for securing the removal of injustice, or the acquisition of good morals. Such is the belief that God is angry with those who oppress their fellow men, as it is said, "Mine anger will be kindled, and I will slay," etc. (Exod. xxii. 23). Or the belief that God hears the crying of the oppressed and vexed, to deliver them out of the hands of the oppressor and tyrant, as it is written, "And it shall come to pass, when he will cry unto me, that I will hear, for I am gracious" (Exod. xxii. 25).” (MN3:28)

Some classic interpreters of Rambam as well as modern scholars pointed to this chapter as an example of Rambam’s “true” esoteric beliefs about reward and punishment. They argue that he did not believe in reward and punishment as true belief but rather as a utilitarian one. I have difficulty accepting that, after studying his presentation of Divine Providence. It is obvious that Rambam sees providence as a natural phenomenon and it is up to man to act in ways that fall in line with God’s will which by definition is “good” as it promotes continued existence. Reward and punishment is thus a natural consequence of our actions. As we believe that God willed things into existence, consequences are therefore traceable to that original will (see MN2:47). When we say that God punishes we are saying that He created the world in a way that there are consequences to actions. This is the sophisticated understanding of reward and punishment. However, the simplistic understanding, that God Himself indeed punishes for every transgression can be understood by all and offers the same result; incentivize good ethics and morals. In fact, the two examples Rambam brings for explicit reward and punishment, both deal with ethical and moral issues that affect society and where the consequences can be traced to reciprocal societal norms.

I understand this as being the message of this chapter and not an “esoteric” view of reward and punishment. As further support for my understanding, this chapter is placed in the midst of chapters that deal with the reason for commandments and not among those that deal with Hashgacha - providence. It explains why some reasons for Mitzvot are explicit and others are not and why some are detailed while others only allude to the reason.

Chag Sameach.   

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Why Does The Torah Not Explain The Reason For Many Mitzvot?

The end goal of the Torah and the commandments is to turn us into thinking people who know God and understand Him and how He runs the world so that we can emulate Him and His goals and partake in the world by fulfilling our role in its continuity. The Torah proposes a regimen that purports to transform, over time and generations, a family of semi-illiterate slaves of Pharaoh into a nation that will lead humanity in this endeavor. It has to take into account our humanity, our weaknesses and strengths and mold these into disciplined purposeful human beings while at the same time teaching us a perspective on the world that will lead us to finding God and knowing Him. To accomplish this, the Torah is a complex and multifaceted system. It teaches basic as well as advanced theology; it works on our biases and narcissism to create a lawful society that does not waste its energy on day-to day survival and self-defense and at the same time helps us to think objectively.

The general object of the Law is twofold: the well-being of the soul, and the well-being of the body. The well-being of the soul is promoted by correct opinions communicated to the people according to their capacity. … The well-being of the body is established by a proper management of the relations in which we live one to another. This we can attain in two ways: first by removing all violence from our midst: that is to say, that we do not do every one as he pleases, desires, and is able to do; but every one of us does that which contributes towards the common welfare. Secondly, by teaching every one of us such good morals as must produce a good social state. Of these two objects, the one, the well-being of the soul, or the communication of correct opinions, comes undoubtedly first in rank, but the other, the well-being of the body, the government of the state, and the establishment of the best possible relations among men, is anterior in nature and time.” (MN 3:27)

In other words, the second objective, the establishment of a lawful society based on morals and ethics is a stepping-stone towards the ultimate goal of acquiring correct theological opinions.

“It is also the object of the perfect Law to make man reject, despise, and reduce his desires as much as is in his power. He should only give way to them when absolutely necessary. It is well known that it is intemperance in eating, drinking, and sexual intercourse that people mostly rave and indulge in; and these very things counteract the ulterior perfection of man, impede at the same time the development of his first perfection, and generally disturb the social order of the country and the economy of the family. For by following entirely the guidance of lust, in the manner of fools, man loses his intellectual energy, injures his body, and perishes before his natural time; sighs and cares multiply; there is an increase of envy, hatred, and warfare for the purpose of taking what another possesses.” (MN 3:33)

Moral and ethics are not only necessary for the good and lawful functioning of society, they are also necessary to our intellectual development. If all our intellectual energies are directed towards self-gratification, there is no room for intellectual development. Furthermore, our perspective becomes distorted where banal things take on great importance clouding our judgment.

The commandments have to address not only individuals with their great variation of personality and nature but also society as a whole while at the same time stimulating their thinking, both the individual and the collective. A commandment will affect different people differently. It will affect different societies and cultures differently. As humanity advances and as the Jewish people develop, the same Mitzvah may affect them differently than it did other generations. The Torah tells us that the Mitzvot are eternal and will be binding on all generations no matter how developed we are. Indeed, even when the utopian society develops, the Messianic times, no Mitzvah will become obsolete. Obviously, for the commandments to remain relevant at all times, their meaning changes with every person and for every society. Blowing the Shofar may take on a different meaning for someone who lived in medieval times when noisemaking was part of warfare and someone who lives in modern times when such methods are obsolete. It will take on a different meaning for someone who is philosophically inclined and one who is not. It will however affect everyone in his own way and accomplish its underlying purpose which is to make us aware and think about the One who commanded it, again each of us at his level of understanding. Clearly, giving an explicit reason for the commandment would be counterproductive. That is how I understand Rambam at the end of Hilchot Me’ilah –

ו [ח] ראוי לאדם להתבונן במשפטי התורה הקדושה, ולידע סוף עניינם
כפי כוחו. ודבר שלא ימצא לו טעם, ולא ידע לו עילה--אל יהי קל בעיניו; ואל
יהרוס לעלות אל ה', פן יפרוץ בו. ולא תהא מחשבתו בו, כמחשבתו בשאר דברי

A person should contemplate the laws of the Holy Torah and [strive to] understand their ultimate purpose to the best of his ability. When confronted by something [a Mitzvah] that he cannot find a reason for nor a purpose, it should not be made light of and he should not attempt to climb to high levels [make up reasons that are not rational – DG] lest he stray [outside the fence]. He should also not think about them in a way he would about mundane matters. (I will leave the rest without translation).

בוא וראה, כמה החמירה תורה במעילה: ומה אם עצים ואבנים ועפר
ואפר--כיון שנקרא שם אדון העולם עליהם בדברים בלבד, נתקדשו; וכל הנוהג בהן
מנהג חול, מעל בה'--ואפילו היה שוגג, צריך כפרה. קל וחומר למצוות שחקק לנו
הקדוש ברוך הוא--שלא יבעוט אדם בהן, מפני שלא ידע טעמן; ולא יחפה דברים
אשר לא כן על ה', ולא יחשב בהן מחשבתו בדברי החול. הרי נאמר בתורה "ושמרתם
את כל חוקותיי ואת כל משפטיי, ועשיתם אותם" (ויקרא יט,לז; ויקרא כ,כב)--ואמרו
חכמים ליתן שמירה ועשייה, לחוקים כמשפטים: והעשייה ידועה, והיא שיעשה
החוקים; והשמירה, שייזהר בהן ולא ידמה שהן פחותין מן המשפטים. והמשפטים,
הן המצוות שטעמן גלוי, וטובת עשייתן בעולם הזה ידועה, כגון איסור גזל
ושפיכות דמים וכיבוד אב ואם; והחוקים, הן המצוות שאין טעמן ידוע. אמרו
חכמים, חוקים שחקקתי לך, ואין לך רשות להרהר בהן. ויצרו של אדם נוקפו בהן,
ואומות העולם משיבין עליהן--כגון איסור בשר חזיר, ובשר בחלב, ועגלה ערופה,
ופרה אדומה, ושעיר המשתלח.
ז וכמה היה דויד המלך מצטער מן המינים והגויים, שהיו משיבין על
החוקים; וכל זמן שהיו רודפין אותו בתשובות השקר שעורכין לפי קוצר דעת האדם,
היה מוסיף דבקה בתורה, שנאמר "טפלו עליי שקר, זדים; אני, בכל לב אצור פיקודיך" (תהילים קיט,סט),
ונאמר שם בעניין "כל מצוותיך, אמונה; שקר רדפוני, עוזרני" (תהילים קיט,פו).
ח וכל הקרבנות כולן, מכלל החוקים הן. לפיכך אמרו חכמים שאף על
עבודת הקרבנות, העולם עומד--שבעשיית החוקים והמשפטים, זוכין הישרים לחיי
העולם הבא; והקדימה תורה ציווייה על החוקים, שנאמר "ושמרתם את חוקותיי ואת
משפטיי, אשר יעשה אותם האדם וחי בהם" (ויקרא יח,ה).

I wish all my friends and readers a Ketiva Vechatima Tova and a good and meaningful year.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Are Commandments Arbitrary?

In earlier posts, I showed that the underlying goal of Mitzvot is to keep us focused on God who commanded these Mitzvot. The question that comes to mind though is how is a particular commandment to be understood? Is it arbitrary without any special reason other than to make us aware that God commanded it? Is it possible for example, that just as the Torah commanded us to slaughter an animal from the neck it could have commanded us to do so by hitting the animal with a hammer over the head? After all, since either one method would be coming from God and being restrictive, meaning that there would be only one way permissible to kill an animal, it would remind us of the same thing, His existence, and trigger our mind to think about Him. Or is there a deeper wisdom that not only reminds us of God but also has another practical objective? Is slaughtering from the neck in itself the only correct way of doing it? Was it chosen randomly among other methods?

Let us take the Halacha of Shechita – slaughtering. Rambam when he organized his Mishne Torah he divided it into 14 books, one of which is the Sefer Kedusha – the Book of Holiness. The Book of Holiness comprises three groupings of Halachot – Forbidden Relations, Forbidden Foods and the laws of Shechita – slaughter. The concept of holiness is uniqueness and separation by acting in a way that is different from those who act following their urges and animal instinct. People are holy when they act for other than selfish reasons, which is our natural urging. Holiness is therefore, acting with self-control, setting limits to those natural urges. The areas that we humans need the most control are where our natural appetites are the strongest, namely sex and food. Just by classifying these halachot together - although at first blush they would seem to be quite different - Rambam tells us a little about the specific goal of these Mitzvot; self-control. The method of killing a permitted animal – Shechita – thus falls under the rubric of self-control. The idea is that having allowed us to eat certain animals while forbidding others for the same reason, namely curbing our appetite, these permitted animals cannot be killed any which way. They require that we prepare a specially sharpened instrument and perform the slaughter in very specific ways, setting limits to our urge for instant gratification. The choice of this specific method of killing when other methods could have been used too with their own detailed rules, accomplishing the same goal of setting limits, has an additional purpose; to teach us to be conscious about the pain of others. Slaughtering from the neck is considered one of the most humane methods of killing. There may be others just as humane but one had to be chosen, and it was this one. The final choice of one humane way over another is practical – one that is easily accessible and does not require a lot of technology or extensive preparations – which would be too much of a burden and eventually lead to people not being able to adhere to the rule. The exact method of killing, in our case using a sharpened instrument to cut from the neck below and not from the neck above, is arbitrary. Both methods would have been equally humane and equally accessible but one was chosen arbitrarily. Although arbitrary, it is however, binding and any other method would not allow us to eat the meat. This arbitrary but binding rule again teaches us discipline and makes us aware that a command from God is binding on us even when it appears to be arbitrary.

Since, therefore, the desire of procuring good food necessitates the slaying of animals, the Law enjoins that the death of the animal should be the easiest. It is not allowed to torment the animal by cutting the throat in a clumsy manner, by poleaxing, or by cutting off a limb whilst the animal is alive.” (MN3:48) “This is their dictum in that passage: What does it matter to the Holy one that animals are slaughtered by cutting their neck in front or in back? Say therefore that the commandments were only given in order to purify the people. For it is said: the word of the Lord is purified…. What everyone that is endowed with a sound intellect ought to believe on this subject is what I shall set forth to you: The generalities of the commandments necessarily have a cause and have been given because of a certain utility. Their details are that about which it is said of the commandments that they were given merely for the sake of commanding something. For instance, the killing of animals because of the necessity of having good food is manifestly useful, as we shall make clear. But the prescription that they should be killed through having the upper and not the lower part of their throat cut, and having their esophagus and windpipe severed at one particular place is, like other prescriptions of the same kind, imposed with a view to purifying the people. The same is made clear to you through their example: slaughtered by cutting their neck in front or in the back. I have mentioned this example to you merely because one finds in their text: slaughtering by cutting their neck in front or in back. However, if one studies the truth of the matter, one finds it to be as follows: As necessity occasions the eating of animals, the commandment was intended to bring about the easiest death in an easy manner; for beheading would only be possible with the help of a sword or something similar, whereas a throat can be cut with anything. In order that the death should come about more easily, the condition was imposed that the knife be sharp.” (MN 3:26)

 We see here a multifaceted approach to Mitzvot where the same action has many purposes but mostly to educate and change our way of thinking while also developing our ethical sense and imposing controls and our natural urges.

As is typical of Rambam, the philosophical and Halachik go hand in hand. Rambam’s Sefer Hamitzvot begins laying down fourteen rules on the conditions a commandment must meet to be counted as a mitzvah that make up the traditional 613 Mitzvot that were given to Moshe. The significance and the high level of importance that Rambam assigns to this number is a lengthy discussion which I will leave for another time. What interests us here is the fourth Shoresh or basic rule.
 וכבר טעו בשורש הזה גם כן, עד שמנו "קדושים תהיו" מצווה מכלל מצוות עשה,

ולא ידעו שאומרו "קדושים תהיו" "והתקדשתם והייתם קדושים" הם ציוויים לקיים

כל התורה, כאילו יאמר 'היה קדוש בעשותך כל מה שציוויתיך בו, והיזהר מכל מה

שהזהרתיך ממנו'. ולשון ספרא "קדושים תהיו - פרושים תהיו", רוצה לומר

היבדלו מן הדברים המגונים כולם שהזהרתי אתכם מהם.

Although the Torah seems to be commanding us specifically to be holy, holiness is not counted as a separate Mitzvah. It is a generalized explanation and reason for our keeping Mitzvot in general. Some Mitzvot have as their central focus holiness such as those in sefer Kedusha, but every Mitzvah has a component of holiness in it – namely separation from our natural narcissistic and self-serving urges and tendencies by imposing and demanding self-control. For a Mitzvah to be counted, the specific commandment must be identified as a sub-category within the whole corpus of Mitzvot with its own identifiable teaching and character other than the ones applicable to all Mitzvot. I wonder whether that in itself points to the fact that there must be a rational reason for each commandment and therefore they cannot be arbitrary.

In following posts, I want to understand why the Torah at times is specific and offers a reason for a Mitzvah while at others it does not.