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