D'var l'Yom ha'Kippurim 5774 - Why mitzvot?
2013 S.H. Parker

So. Where were we?

Ah, yes!

"Yom ha'Kippurim" means "day of covering over." 

Covering over is made by tsuvah. "Tsuvah," in connection with the yomim nora'im, is rendered "repentance." In other contexts, it is rendered "return." But it literally means "to turn around."

It is imperative that I be explicit: there are two ways to turn around.

One is to "turn from." Theologically, this is how to avoid sin - we turn from situations containing temptation.

The other is to "turn toward." This is "doing mitzvot." And when the Rabbis of the Mishna invoke the notion of "doing mitzvot," they are inevitably talking about turning toward something, not avoiding sin. 

By the way, I recently read that there is no mishnah for tzitzit, tefillin, mezuzot, hannukah, gerim (conversion).  If true, this means that hilchot most commonly associated with orthodoxy today - tallit and tefillin - are post-Mishnaic , no earlier than the Amoraim. This fits well with the facts on the ground, as tefillin, for example, are not attested earlier than the third century CE (and, by the way, the first tefillin were conical in shape, single chambered and contained very different verses). Similarly, the tallit is a 13th century creation (though tallit-like garments are thought to have been worn by shepherds as early as the 4th century).

In  other words, when the Rabbis exhort us to "do mitzvot," they are not likely to be talking about tallit or tefillin.

I think I've previously mentioned the Gemara in Pesachim 50B. 

This Gemara cites a contradiction in psukim between Tehillim 57:11 and Tehillim 108:5: "ki gadol ad shamayim chasdecha (Your mercy is great unto the heavens)" and "ki gadol me-al shamayim chasdecha (Your mercy is great beyond the heavens)." The resolution to this contradiction ["up to" in the first Psalm; "beyond" in the second - clearly a bit of pilpul] is: "kan beosin lishma, vekan beosin shelo lishma" "Here [the second verse] it speaks of those who perform a Mitzvah for its own sake, and there [the first] it speaks of those who perform a Mitzvah not for its own sake but for the sake of a reward Rav Judah said in Rav's name: "one should always occupy themselves with Torah and good deeds even if in hope of a reward, because out of doing mitzvot, even for the wrong reason, comes doing them for their own sake."

My own understanding of the mitzvot is that they are intended shape behavior for the sole purpose of shaping character and, through shaping the character of individuals, shaping the character of society. Society, of course, in turn shapes individuals....

Essential to doing mitzvot is to think about your behavior (perhaps that is why the Rabbis give greater credit to the baal teshuvah and the ger than one who has been observant since an early age; the baal teshuvah and the ger knows what the alternatives are and has made a conscious decision to forego things not incumbent on the nations):

What is this mitzvah trying to create in me? Therefore, even for the most abstruse and arcane mitzvot, we need to be thinking about its intended effect on us, for therein the embedded value is revealed.

It is clear to me that some members of the tribe have forgotten - possibly never knew - this. They act as itf tzitzit, tefillin, needah, Shabbat and haggim equals "doing mitzvot." But, to me, this is the theological equivalent of the pig. The pig puts forth his cloven hoof, showing the world "behold! I have a cloven hoof." But, inside, where the world cannot see, he does not ruminate.

Most of us know well enough what to turn away from. How do we know what to turn towards? How do we know the what is a mitzvah? Rashbam, for example, argues that tefillin are not.... In many things, most people know well enough what to turn towards but is "many things" all that is expected of us?

What I want to suggest is that we need a revival of knowledge of what the Torah actually says, the basics which many simply lack, including many who do not appear to be reading the same Torah as I do. I suggest that it is the in-depth study of the text of the Torah itself that we should all be working on. By deeply studying our text, with good companion commentaries (why make it hard on ourselves, it isn't supposed to be hard, it's supposed to be fun), we begin to grasp and to internalize the value system of TorahThis is what enables us to act out these values on the stage of history. It is this conscious immersion in Torah's system that gives us the tools for tikun olam, fixing the world. 

Four paragraphs after "while I stand on one foot" (Shabbat 31a ):

Rava said, When man is led in for judgment he is asked, Did you deal faithfully [i.e., with integrity, were you honest in business; "business" being the Rabbinic understanding], did you fix times for learning, did you engage in procreation, did you hope for salvation, did you engage in the dialectics of wisdom, did you understand [deduce] one thing from another [i.e., "learn how to learn"]. Yet even so, if "the fear of the Lord is his treasure," it is well: if not, [it is] not [well].

Notice, Rava asserts that the first thing one is asked at judgment - if there is such a thing - is "did you deal faithfully?" Next, you are asked "Did you learn Torah?" And, as the Gemara did not exist at the time Rava spoke, he did not mean Gemara.... Finally he asks, did you learn how to apply Torah to new situations?

Study the pshat, become the Torah's metaphysical agent, bring it into the current sociology (drosh), this is how we learn what to turn toward....

Gamar tov.