On the surface, the mishnah’s point is simple enough: do not weigh and categorize G-d’s commandments. But upon closer examination, its words seem fraught with ambiguity and contradiction.
Are there or are there not differences between mitzvos? The mishnah seems to saying that there aren’t, but it itself uses the terms “minor” and “major” (kaloh and chamurah) – terms which are used to categorize mitzvos in the Talmud and its commentaries and in the various codes of Torah law.
On the Essence of the Mitzvah:
Commanding Connection and Refining Deed
Sivan 13, 5771 * June 15, 2011
What does it mean to obey God? What does it mean to sin? Are their big sins and little sins? Can one form of obedience be better than another?
The commentary from which I quoted above struggles with this question and the meaning of what obeying the commandments does for us and for others. And while it is true, this commentary was written for a Jewish audience, I think there is more than ample reason for Christians to take it seriously as well.
One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?”
“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
“Well said, teacher,” the man replied. “You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him. To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
When Jesus saw that he had answered wisely, he said to him, “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” And from then on no one dared ask him any more questions.-Mark 12:28-44
If you love me, keep my commands. –John 14:15
This isn’t to suggest that the commands issued by Jesus and applied to his non-Jewish disciples were identical to the 613 commandments given to the Children of Israel at Sinai, but it is clear that the grace of God did not wipe away the law of God in the world and that each of us has a responsibility to obey our Creator and to avoid rebellion against Him.
But putting aside the specific content of the commandments for a moment, why do we have those that Jesus gave to the nations and those that Moses related to Israel? Why do we have commandments at all? It’s not as if obeying or disobeying God can add to or take away from His Holiness and perfection. Continuing with the “On the Essence of the Mitzvah” commentary, we find:
In other words, there are two dimensions to the mitzvos. On the most basic level, a mitzvah, by virtue of its being commanded by the Almighty, binds its performer (as well as the resources which he utilizes in its performance) to its Commander. In this, all mitzvos are indeed equal. A mitzvah that takes tremendous sacrifice and many years of spiritual development to fulfill connects us to G-d no more than one which is observed with a single, effortless act.
But G-d did more. He not only opened a channel into our lives by which we may connect to Him, He also made this path a “perfect way”, a way of life which improves and perfects those who travel it. His word not only conveys His will and command, it is also a “refined” word—a word that refines those who heed it. This is the second, “specific” dimension of the mitzvah. When we give charity, we not only fulfill a Divine command, we also develop in ourselves a sensitivity to the needs of others and learn the proper perspective on the material resources which have been entrusted to us.
This reads very much like the “two greatest commandment” I quoted above from Mark. While in one sense, commandments are equal in that they all serve God (though we cannot know their true, relative merit from a Heavenly perspective), they also differ in that some of them connect us to God exclusively while others serve this purpose, plus they make us sensitive to those around us. In other words, what we do for God, though He has no needs at all that we can satisfy, is inexorably intertwined with what we do for people (and we have a great ability to perform acts that benefit other human beings), the act of which benefits others and refines our nature.
Yet, one of the “dangers” of serving other people is that we can let that “feel good” experience when we perform kindness and charity distract us from the One who we are serving as well:
However, warns the Ethics, never lose sight of the deeper import of the mitzvos. Employ the Divine commandments to build a better self and world, thus experiencing them as an entire array of major and minor influences on your life, but remember that they all share a deeper, unified truth. Be equally careful of them all, for their true reward is beyond knowledge and experience.
What we do to connect to God, to refine our own character, and to serve the needs of others, must remain balanced within us. To bias our viewpoint in one direction or the other could mean we continue to do mercy and justice while losing sight of the unifying “why”. But even losing sight of God does not mean He loses sight of us. His Hand is still upon us, regardless of who we are or how we are behaving or thinking. How many people have lost sight of God or have never experienced Him in a deliberate and conscious manner, and yet still yearn for Him, His Justice, and His mitzvot?
I do not accept your assertion that you do not believe.
For if you truly had no concept of a Supernal Being Who created the world with purpose, then what is all this outrage of yours against the injustice of life?
The substance of the universe is not moral, nor are plants and animals. Why should it surprise you that whoever is bigger and more powerful swallows his fellow alive?
It is only due to an inner conviction in our hearts, shared by every human being, that there is a Judge, that there is right and there is wrong. And so, when we see a wrong, we demand an explanation: Why is this not the way it is supposed to be?
That itself is belief in G-d.
Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
We cannot escape God. We are made in His image. Atheists cannot escape God, for even in crying out against the real and perceived injustices in the world, they unknowingly appeal to the One True Judge. We, as believers, cannot escape God either. You might imagine that, being “religious people” we only want to draw closer to Him, but we must realize that we do so only on His terms, and not on ours.
Rabban Gamliel the son of Rabbi Judah HaNassi would say: Make that His will should be your will, so that He should make your will to be as His will. Nullify your will before His will, so that He should nullify the will of others before your will. –Ethics of the Fathers 2:4
If you love me, keep my commands. –John 14:15
Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done. –Luke 22:42
Know the Master you serve and then seek to do His will with all your heart.