Acting for the Right Reasons

Will Gotkin is a recent graduate of The George Washington University and a regular contributor to GTJ.

Last week we read Parshas Mishpatim. After the ‘thunder and lightning’ of Parshas Yisro (the Torah was given amidst a storm of thunder and lightning), Parshas Mispatim, which is more legalistic than it is narrative, can be viewed as somewhat of a let-down. But this parsha teaches us two especially profound truths that are worthy of elaboration.

The first lesson is that our devotion must remain even after inspiration has departed.  The fact that Mispatim begins with civil laws related to damages and the granting of loans immediately after the excitement of receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai is not accidental. One often experiences a ‘thunder and lightning’ storm of excitement when beginning one’s journey into Yiddishkeit, but as many married people already know – the infatuation stage eventually disappears.

In the beginning many of the ideas of Torah are fresh and new to us. Then sometimes a person starts learning about some of the drier everyday halachos (Jewish laws) or sits in front of an open volume of Talmud with a blank look on their face and the high vanishes. But if a person perseveres and commits himself to study even when he is not ‘inspired,’ not only will the person re-experience the excitement of his personal ‘Sinai stage’ (albeit in a more focused, internalized manner), but the rewards he will reap are endless and eternal. The study of Torah will then take on an entirely different dimension. Rather than being on a high that lacks substance or feeling bored, one will taste depth and richness. The student of Torah will experience the joy and contentment one can only get from experience, understanding, and broad perspective. That is why we must not study in order to get some kind of self-centered, intellectual buzz, but in order to serve the Creator and actualize our purpose for being born into this world.

Mitzvahs too can be very powerful experiences. But the high some may get when they first start observing mitzvos is only an emotion, and Judaism is not based on emotion. What happens when the inspiration wears off? Does the person now put the tefillin and Shabbos candles back in the closet never to take them out again or until the feeling of inspiration returns? Chas v’shalom (G-d forbid)! When mitzvahs are done not in order to gain a nirvana-like, out-of-body type of experience, but in order to serve Hashem, a Jew is truly attaching to something eternal, lasting, and real. The ideal is to do mitzvos only because it is the will of Hashem. This requires us to get past our own egos. This does not mean we lose our individuality or destroy our self-esteem. See Humility and Happiness for more on this topic. It is indeed a very lofty level, but one to which we should all aspire if we wish to lead inspired, Jewish lives.

Secondly, most of Parshas Mishpatim deals with the rational laws (mishpatim), or laws that make objective sense to us. The mishpatim possess obvious benefit for civilized societies e.g. laws against murder, theft, and kidnapping. Judaism holds that the value of such laws could have been discerned by mankind even if the Torah had never been given. But it is important to remember not to fall into the trap of obeying these laws simply because they ‘make sense.’ Rashi tells us in his commentary that “these [the rational laws] are also from Sinai” in order to remind us that we must carry out these laws and observe these mitzvos because Hashem wants us to and not just because we feel like it.[1] We must approach the laws that make sense to our limited, finite minds in the same way we approach the ones that are completely beyond our understanding because in essence they are all above our understanding. They all emanated from the same Divine intellect, which is infinite. We must perform the mitzvos only for the sake of the One who commanded them so that we will be able to sanctify our physical lives and world.


[1] The Gutnick Edition Chumash, The Book of Exodus, 145