Once upon a time, before being taught Maimonides by a patient teacher, I used to think that the more mitzvot I kept, the happier God would be with me, and the more I would be rewarded in some way. It embarrasses me now to admit that I once thought I could control God’s actions through my behaviour.
But then what is Halachah for? What’s the reward for keeping mitzvot? Scholar and theologian Yeshayahu Leibowitz, born in 1905 in Riga, wrote that the sole purpose of religious commandments is to obey God, and not to receive any rewards in this world or in the world to come.
This week we read Ekev, which contains what Bible scholar Nechama Leibowitz calls the essence of the whole Torah:
‘And now O Israel, what does the Lord your God demand of you? Only this: to revere the Lord your God, to walk only in his paths, to love him and to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good. ‘ (Deut. 10:12-13)
The word ‘revere’ here is also sometimes translated as ‘fear’. The Hebrew is yirah. God’s demands start with the command to revere or fear, and certain actions follow. Those actions are to walk, to love, to serve and to keep the mitzvot. And the reason for doing all this is because it is for your own good.
The last two words of the passage say explicitly that we do all that keeping of laws and commandments for our own good. In what way would that be for our own good? Nechama Leibowitz quotes the possibility raised by Joseph Albo, a 15th-century Spanish philosopher, who says: ‘For fear is that state of mind which is acquired through the commandments of the Torah as the noblest character that a man can attain.’
Albo goes on to say that the state of mind of fear or reverence of God is very difficult to acquire, so God made it easier for us to just keep the statutes and commandments. Keeping mitzvot is much easier than living in a perpetual state of love with God with all your heart and all your soul.
I know what he means. Just as I know it would be far better to relate to everyone as if I lived in a perpetual state of enlightenment and kindness, most days I have to just get up in the morning, go to work on a crowded train, deal with a demanding job, and then cook and do the laundry, all without biting anyone’s head off. Luckily, there is a system of daily practises to remind me of my place in the universe. To remind me that, contrary to how it looks to me through my own eyes, I am not the centre of the world. That it’s not about what I want all the time. There are things I can’t do and foods I can’t eat.
Ultimately, as Job tells us in Job 28:28, fear of God is wisdom. And that kind of fear is not gained by silent contemplation. It is gained through living in the real world in the right way, making as many good choices as it is humanly possible to make.
Janine Stein is a member of New North London Synagogue