By Moshe Parelman
G-d said He would choose us if we chose Him.
It was the second day of the month of Sivan, four days before the Giving of the Torah. Moses ascended Mount Sinai early that morning. G-d called out to him, instructing Moses to tell the Jewish nation encamped opposite the mountain, “And now, if you heed Me and keep My covenant, you will be a treasure to Me from among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine (Exodus 19:5).” Choose My Torah and its mitzvot, which I am ready to give you, and I will choose you as My nation.
G-d made His choice of the Jewish people conditional on their accepting His commandments because the mitzvot are G-d’s tools for achieving His master plan. That plan is the ultimate reason for Creation and the mission He chose the Jews to carry out.
G-d created the world, according to the Torah, because He desired a finite, physical place, foreign to divinity – and reside there. G-d wanted the universe to feel so familiar to Him He could be Himself there, like a person in his living room.
To satisfy that desire G-d gave the Jewish people mitzvot to transform an imperfect world into a dwelling place for G-d by elevating mundane physical matter to holiness.
One could question, however, why the commandments distinguish the Jewish people as “Chosen.” Since the beginning of time people with their good deeds have refined the material
G-d gave them, turning barbarianism into civilization, improving life and curing disease: stones to wheels; sounds to symphonies; mold to penicillin; sand to computer chips. Surely the march of civilization has made the planet a more hospitable environment for G-d.
Still there must be something unique about doing a mitzvah – some quality that makes the act the preferred way to bring out the divine in the world.
Maybe the difference lies in intention. When a Jew lights Shabbat candles she intends to attach herself to G-d’s will as expressed in that commandment. The inventor of the heart transplant or the mappers of the human genome, although benefiting G-d’s creation, weren’t necessarily intending to do G-d’s will.
Unlike in contemporary times, though, in past centuries many scientists were religious men, some even inspired by G-d to investigate nature. Consider the case of Isaac Newton. Newton, in his own words, intended with the Principia – his great work of physics which more than any other book helped usher in modern science – to demonstrate the existence of G-d in the world. Newton wanted to make the world welcome to G-d’s being here, basically the Jewish mission. Intention, then, apparently doesn’t separate the mitzvah from the societal contribution.
So maybe the mitzvah’s uniqueness derives not from intention but from the mitzvah act. The mitzvah, a sacred undertaking, serves as a vehicle for G-d’s plan for the universe. The civilization advancing achievement, a secular activity, is perhaps unable to channel the divine mission.
But the Torah itself says otherwise. According to the Talmud, doctors don’t heal their patients. G-d does. The doctor is merely a vehicle for G-d’s blessing and will. That means that Edward Jenner, who developed the first vaccine (for small pox), Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, your doctor, and your mother, who gave you medicine when you were sick, were all doing G-d’s work. So the contributor to society carries out G-d’s plan, just as the mitzvah achiever does.
Nonetheless, the secular improvement and the mitzvah are different. And the reason is there are two plans.
The person who makes a contribution to civilization helps implement G-d’s immediate, short-term plan: creating a settled, humane planet. When man betters the planet, he connects with G-d through Creation. He takes from the material G-d made for the world during Creation and innovates – the number zero, genetic sequencing – to improve the universal condition. The innovator improves the world, but it remains essentially the same one that G-d created.
The mitzvah doer, by contrast, shoulders G-d’s long-term, permanent plan: laying the groundwork for the Era of Mashiach. That strategy prescribes transforming the planet into a dwelling place for G-d. Because making over the universe is so extraordinary, indeed otherworldly, the project requires a special tool.
The tool, the mitzvah, converts the part of the physical world used to perform the commandment, as well as the mitzvah doer, into a vehicle for holiness. When a Jewish person gives tzedakah (charity), according to Chassidic philosophy, the time and energy spent by the person in earning that money ascends with the mitzvah to the sacred.
But the Jew and his mitzvah cannot revolutionize the globe employing only the elements
G-d used to create the world we’ve always known. To elevate a Jew’s labor and money into something holy – to contribute to the transformation of the planet into a Mashiach planet – the mitzvah channels new life into the world from G-d’s very essence. That is the uniqueness of the mitzvah.
G-d chose the Jewish people to complete Creation. At Mount Sinai He entrusted us with His Torah and mitzvot – per our approval – to purify the earth, mitzvah by mitzvah. Over three millennia of mitzvot later, the world stands on the brink of a new reality. And the two who chose each other at Sinai will finally be together, here.