51. The Wisdom of God’s Commandments
If you want to see an example of God’s wisdom, all you have to do is look at how He designed the wonders of creation. [III, 32] The Rambam discusses the wisdom of the nervous system, how the nerves carry impulses from the brain and spinal cord to the muscles in order to effect movement. He also discusses how baby mammals are incapable of eating dry food, so He gave them the ability to produce milk.
Just as nature was designed through God’s wisdom, the same is true of the mitzvos.
God knows that it’s impossible for humans to spontaneously reverse their ingrained behaviors. Were God to command spontaneous spiritual perfection, failure would be inevitable. For this reason, the Torah was designed as a form of gradual behavior modification for the Jewish people.
An example of this can be found through the Temple service. The Jews who left Egypt were the product of an idolatrous culture. The only way they knew to relate to a deity was through temples, priests, offerings, and the like. God therefore did not command that such service be spontaneously abandoned. Rather, He transitioned the people by commanding that a Temple be built to Him rather than to false gods, that sacrifices be offered only to Him, that Aaron’s descendants be appointed to serve as priests, and that the kohanim and Leviim, who serve as religious functionaries, receive certain portions as gifts for their service. Through this way, idolatry was able to be abandoned in favor of the service of God. As a long-term consequence, idolatry as it existed formerly is virtually extinct and monotheism is the preeminent religious model, even among non-Jews.
Some people may object to the idea that the mitzvos, which are integral components of our faith and practice, do not exist as their own objectives but just as means to achieve some other goal. Wouldn’t it make sense for God just to command the thing He actually desires of us rather than employing a work-around?
In truth, there is precedent for the idea. Exodus 13:17 tells us that “God led (the Jews) not by way of the land of the Philistines, even though it was close, because God said, ‘Lest the people change their minds when they see war and return to Egypt.’” Could God have commanded the Jews to take the more direct route? Certainly. But He knew what the consequence would be: the people would become scared and run back to Egypt. Therefore, He refrained from commanding them to directly address their ultimate goal. Rather, He gave them roundabout instructions that would achieve the intended goal later but successfully.
Similarly, God did not command the Jews to spontaneously divest themselves of every familiar form of service. While doing so might seem to be the way to achieve His goal sooner, God knew that it was a course of action that would not be successful.
For similar reasons, God did not take the Jews from Egypt directly into Israel. You can’t just take a slave who works with bricks and mortar, clean him up, and send him into battle against literal giants. Had God commanded this, the people would have been unable to accomplish the goal. Rather, they needed time to lose the slave mentality and to develop the courage necessary for the conquest of the land.
If the mitzvos represent a means to an end rather than God’s actual desired goal, one might ask why God doesn’t just instill within people the desire to do the thing He wants. If God desires that certain modes of worship be abandoned, wouldn’t it be more efficacious for Him to make people want to serve Him in a particular way instead of meeting them half-way?
That’s just not an option. God may change nature through miracles – splitting seas, enabling donkeys to talk, causing iron to float – but He never changes the nature of human beings. This important principle is the subject of Deuteronomy 5:25, in which God says, “If only they would always have a heart such as this, to revere Me and keep all My commandments so that it might be well for them and their descendants forever.”
God certainly possesses the ability to change a person’s nature but it is not His desire to act in this fashion. This is why He gave us both the positive mitzvos (obligations) and the negative mitzvos (prohibitions), as well as reward and punishment. If it were God’s modus operandi to micromanage human nature, all that would be unnecessary; we would all be automatons, fulfilling God’s will by remote control.
And so, the Rambam tells us, the sacrificial service does not represent God’s ideal mode of worship; prayer, as we currently practice it, is closer to the goal. For this reason, the parameters of the Temple service are extremely limited. We are not commanded to build altars and offer sacrifices wherever we happen to live. People cannot train to become kohanim. Quite the opposite – these things are actually prohibited! There was only one Temple at any given time, in a very specific location. By its very nature, sacrificial service was impossible to practice except in that one place. This is not the way God would command a practice that He desired to perpetuate. On the other hand, prayer, our primary mode of service, can be offered by any person in any place. The same is true of other mitzvos, like tzitzis and mezuzah, whose practice God clearly desires to promulgate.
Since sacrifices are not something God desires for their own sake, it makes sense that the prophets’ rebukes frequently reference the people’s overemphasis of this area. Examples include:
- “…Does God delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as He does in hearkening to the voice of God?” (I Samuel 15:22);
- “’Why do I need the multitude of your sacrifices to Me?” says God. ‘I have had enough of the burnt offerings of rams and the fat of beasts. I do not take delight in the blood of bulls, lambs, or goats” (Isaiah 1:11);
- “I did not speak to your ancestors, nor did I command them on the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, about burnt offerings or sacrifices. Rather, this thing I commanded them, saying, ‘Hearken to My voice and I will be your God, and you will be My people, and walk in the way that I command you so that it will be well with you’” (Jeremiah 7:22-23).
Commentators struggled with that verse in Jeremiah. How could that prophet say that God did not command us about sacrifices when He clearly did? The answer is as the Rambam explained: the objective of the sacrifices is not that we offer sacrifices, it’s that we eradicate idolatry and come to worship God. In Jeremiah’s day, idolatry was a problem. If the people aren’t abandoning idolatry, Jeremiah says, then the sacrifices serve no purpose. This idea is reiterated in Psalms (50:7-8), which says, “Hear, My people, and I will speak. Israel, I will testify against you; I am God, your God. I will not rebuke you regarding your sacrifices….”
We see that, while sacrifices are indeed a mitzvah, they are not the thing that God ultimately desires. They are a stepping-stone that God gave us in His wisdom in order to help guide us to greater things that He truly wants from us.