Opportunities, Not Rights
In this week’s Torah reading, we have a mitzvah (commandment) to refrain from muzzling an ox while it is threshing. Why does one owe his ox to be treated to the grain it is threshing? The Sefer Hachinuch (Mitzvah 596) tells us that this mitzvah is intended to instill in us the trait of being kind and compassionate. It’s not about the ox’s rights, it’s about us becoming elevated people. Exercising compassionate deeds turns us into compassionate people.
This gives us a new attitude towards mitzvos. The Torah is not merely a compilation of random laws. The Torah is a program for improving ourselves and reshaping who we are. The Medrash states (Bereishis Rabbah 44:1) in reference to the laws governing shechitah (ritual slaughtering), that God doesn’t have any personal benefit from the way shechitah is done. Rather, the purpose of all mitzvos is to purify man.
The Ramban (22:6) expounds on this concept and says that every single mitzvah a person does, besides earning reward, benefits a person in his life and improves him. It’s not a matter of doing God “favors” in exchange for receiving reward. Serving God as prescribed by the Torah is the best program for improving and benefiting ourselves in our lives. With some mitzvos, such as refraining from muzzling an animal while working with food, the way it improves our character is more understandable, and with some mitzvos, such as shechitah, it is less apparent. Whether we understand how a mitzvah helps us or not, every mitzvah is an opportunity God has granted us to become a better person, which is the purpose of life.
God is not asking for favors; He wants to benefit us
A man once walked into the Telshe Yeshivah (school for Talmud study). He had shaven parts of his head which are forbidden to be shaven. One of the rabbis noticed what the man had done, and asked Rabbi B. to enlighten the fellow and educate him so that he wouldn’t make the mistake again. Rabbi B. approached the person and said, “Perhaps you didn’t realize, but by shaving those parts of your head, you committed a boat-load of transgressions. Every hair shaven is another transgression.”
The man responded in a nonchalant manner, “I don’t believe that our Merciful Father would care about some hair being shaven off.” Rabbi B. was quick to respond and said, “That’s exactly it, but you got it all wrong. It’s because we have a Merciful Father who cares so much about us, that he gave us these laws to follow. Because He loves us so much, He knows best what is best for us, and out of His great mercy He instructed us to behave in a manner which benefits us most.”
This is a mistake we all make to some extent. We feel that we are doing God favors when we push ourselves to do a mitzvah. God doesn’t need us to do anything for Him. God is only interested in benefitting and helping us. Instead of looking at mitzvos as mere obligations, we should train ourselves to see them as the manifestation of God’s kindness. Every mitzvah we encounter is another act of kindness of God, offering us opportunities to help ourselves. Every mitzvah is an opportunity to become a better person.
By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber firstname.lastname@example.org