Are we capable of understanding the true reasons for the Torah’s commandments? Or should we be satisfied with the simple rationale that we perform mitzvot in order to fulfill what God wants us to do?
“If you come across a bird’s nest ... You must first send away the mother, and only then may you take the young.” (Deut. 22:6-7)
At first glance, the mitzvah to chase away the mother bird seems clearly to be an expression of Divine compassion for His creations. In fact, that is exactly what Maimonides wrote in his Guide for the Perplexed (III:48). However, we find the Talmud (Berachot 33b) explicitly states:
“One who says in his prayers, ‘May Your compassion extend to us as it does for the mother bird’ ... should be silenced.”
Maimonides explained that this Talmudic statement is according to the opinion that we should not to seek explanations for mitzvot. According to this position, the Torah’s mitzvot may only be understood as an expression of God’s Will and His divine decrees, and are beyond the grasp of the human intellect.
It is possible, however, to offer an alternative explanation. When we serve God with our minds and intellect, it is proper to seek rationale for mitzvot. Such pursuits contribute to the intellectual realm, to the realm of Torah study. Understanding is achieved empirically, as we try to discern the underlying principles from the myriad details. It is thus fitting to analyze each individual mitzvah, and attempt to understand its function and rationale; and each individual analysis will then contribute to our overall understanding of the Torah.
Yet, we also seek perfection in our emotional service of God. And in the emotional realm, the details tend to obstruct and confuse. Especially when we serve God in prayer, our incentive should be a general desire to fulfill God’s Will. This universal motivation, simple and uncomplicated, applies equally to all mitzvot.
The distinction between our intellectual and emotional service of God surfaces in the difference between Torah study and prayer. One who prays, “May Your compassion extend to us as it does for the mother bird,” is confusing what should be the straightforward, simple emotions of noble service with complex calculations regarding the underlying rationale of mitzvot. Such in-depth analyses may be appropriate in our investigative efforts when studying Torah, but they obstruct the purer, more natural service of God that is appropriate when praying.
Investigations into the reasons for mitzvot belong in the philosophical inquiries of the Guide for the Perplexed. One who does this during prayer, however, “should be silenced.”
(Gold from the Land of Israel, pp. 327-328. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p. 160)