Ki Teitzei: Why do Mitzvot?
In this week’s parsha, HaShem tells us the reward for sending away the mother bird:
If a bird’s nest chances before you on the road… you shall not take the mother upon the young. You shall send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you should lengthen your days.
HaShem informs us that the reward for fulfilling the mitzvah of shooing away the mother bird before taking the eggs is long life. The only other mitzvah in the Torah for which we are told its reward, is honouring your mother and father, where the reward is also long life.
Why is it, with the exception of these two mitzvot, that HaShem doesn’t tell us the rewards for fulfilling His mitzvot?
I’d like to present two possible answers.
The first is revealed to us in a midrash on this week’s parsha in Devarim Rabbah, which says:
What does the Pasuk in Mishlei 5:6 mean when it says “Lest you weigh the path of life…”?
It means HaShem said: Don’t sit and weigh the mitzvot of the Torah.
Rebbi Aba the son of Kahana said it means: Don’t say “Since this mitzvah has a greater reward, I will do it, and since this mitzvah has a smaller reward, I won’t do it.”
Therefore what did HaShem do? He didn’t reveal the rewards of each mitzvah, so that we do all the mitzvot in the end.
This is comparable to a king who rented out workers for his orchard, and he didn’t reveal to them the reward for their work. At the end of the day, he went up to each one and asked “Which plant did you work on?” Each worker showed him the tree he worked on.
The king replied to each one: This tree grows peppers, that’s worth 1 gold cold. This tree grows white flowers, that’s worth half a gold coin. And this is an olive tree, it’s worth 200 gold coins.
After the king had finished paying everyone, the workers responded “You should have told us which trees were worth more before we started our work!”
The King replied “If I had done that, not every tree in the orchard would have been worked on.”
So too, HaShem didn’t reveal to us the reward for mitzvot, except for two: The most difficult and the easiest mitzvot – honouring your mother and father, and sending away the mother bird. For both mitzvot you receive long life.
Here we can see, the reason for not revealing to us the rewards for mitzvot is so that we don’t pick and choose the mitzvot. If we were to know which mitzvot had the greatest rewards, we might exclusively do those mitzvot and neglect other mitzvot with a lesser reward.
Another possible reason why HaShem has hidden the rewards for mitzvot, is possibly because HaShem doesn’t want us to focus on the rewards we will receive for doing them. HaShem wants us to do His will, not out of a want for rewards, but for an intrinsic desire to serve HaShem and create a relationship with Him.
If we knew all the rewards, our relationship with HaShem might have been based on an extrinsic motivation to receive rewards and we might have been a bit more selfish in why we are doing mitzvot. Instead of doing a mitzvah, for example giving tzedaka, because you know it will help someone and HaShem wants us to be compassionate to others, we might be compelled to give tzedaka because we know the reward for it and lose sight of the true intentions we should have. But without their revealed reasons, we are free to develop that intrinsic desire to serve HaShem, to do the mitzvot because we want to do HaShem’s will, create a relationship with Him and become better people to make the world a better place.
The hope is to get to a level of Intrinsic motivation where we want to serve Him without any other reason than to fulfil His will and to create this relationship, because that’s what’s best for us and the world, because the mitzvot were given to us for our, and the world’s, benefit.
Everyone has their own unique relationship and motivations for doing mitzvot and serving HaShem. During Elul, this is the time to really reflect on what our relationship with HaShem looks like, and what we want it to look like in the future. Elul is a time when we inspect our actions from this past year and see where we can improve, but I think it should also be more than that. We should try dig deeper to remember the reasons that we do His mitzvot in the first place and try to reinvigorate and rekindle our inspiration and excitement to do mitzvot that go beyond our want to receive rewards. Hopefully by reflecting and recalling the spark that we all have that inspires us to serve HaShem and do His mitzvot, we can further develop our relationship with Him and become closer to The Creator of the Universe, our King and Father this coming Rosh Hashanah.