In reading the book Teaching Mitzvot: Concepts, Values, and Activities by Barbara Binder Kadden and Bruce Kadden (2003), I came across a great introduction to the meaning of Mitzvot and the way that halachah fits with our practice of them. I thought this might add some insight into our group’s ongoing discussion about the mitzvot that we do, how we do them and how we understand the reward as it is discussed in Pirkei Avot:
Doing Mitzvot carries an implied reward – life in the World to Come. However, what this means is never made clear. We are taught to do Mitzvot, not for the promised reward, but simply because they are Mitzvot – G-d’s commandments. Furthermore, the kavanah (intention) with which we approach Mitzvot is also considered important. Simply going through the motions to fulfil the law, while acceptable, is discouraged. Rather, Mitzvot are to be performed with joy and devotion.
The Mitzvot are the foundation of Jewish practice, but have required much interpretation throughout the ages. This process of interpreting the Mitzvot as they apply to specific situations is called halachah (literally, ‘the way’). The process of halachah has been carried out by the leading Rabbis of each generation, first through their teachings, which became part of the Mishnah and Talmud, then through the Codes, such as the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides and the Shulchan Aruch of Joseph Karo, and through the Responsa, which are the Rabbis’ answers to questions of Jewish practice.