The Underlying Purpose of Biblical Commandments
To the casual reader of the Torah, there seem to be an awful lot of commandments that don’t seem to make much – if any – sense. Indeed, Christianity’s sub-selection of which commandments Christians follow seems to track pretty closely with this same division (e.g. forbidden relations are kept, while the laws regarding diet are not).
Yet for those who read carefully, there are numerous clues that explain the commandments, even the more obscure and less obvious ones. And sometimes there are clues that apply to all commandments that help us understand why they are there in the first place. There are a whole string of curses in Deut. 28. And in the middle of all of them, there is a verse, a clue, that explains why we get cursed:
Since you did not serve G-d with simcha … (28:47)
What is this word, simcha? Its usage is explained elsewhere (Ex. 4:14), when G-d tells Moses that his brother is coming: “He is simcha in his heart.”
Think on it. The brothers were separated for many years. We have no sure knowledge of the extent or depth of their relationship prior to this event. But we know that Aaron and Moses were to form a deep and dynamic bond that carried them both for the rest of their lives. And it all seems to start with this event, the feeling Aaron has for reunification with his brother: simcha.
And now we have it: simcha is the joy and anticipation one has for reunifying with someone, for investing into a relationship, for seeking and growing positive and holy connections. And so the word is used this way throughout the Torah – simcha is not merely “joy,” because it can only be experienced when someone else is in the picture. A simcha is when people (or people and G-d) come together, ideally sharing a common goal.
And this then beautifully explains the nature of the commandments and the Torah itself. We are not supposed to merely tick the boxes. As the prophets put it, speaking for G-d (paraphrased): “I don’t want your sacrifices: I want you to be nice to each other!” Because sacrifices are meant to change the offeror, not merely be seen as a means to buy G-d off while we refuse to build a holy society. And indeed, this is the case for all commandments, for the entire Torah, as this verse tells us: Commandments are there so we can use them to build holy relationships. Those relationships can be between man and G-d, husband and wife, brothers, or any two (or more) people.
So when we do what we are told, we are supposed to be mindful that everything we do is for the purpose of building connections, investing in relationships, investing in each other. That is why it is not enough that we do what we are told. We must do it while consciously growing productive and meaningful relationships with G-d and with man.
When we see Torah commandments in that light, it unlocks whole new levels of meaning.
P.S. A reader (YY) points out that the phrase ושמח את אשתו, to “give joy to your wife” is used precisely this way: