Human beings are dualistic creatures. We have both a physical side and a spiritual side. We have both needs, and we are simultaneously drawn towards both sides.
The two sides do not necessarily conflict. It is possible to grow spiritually without denying the physical needs and desires. But there is one major difference between the two sides. If the spiritual side gains complete mastery, it will still make sure to keep the physical side healthy. After all, the Torah also commands us to take good care of our bodies, and to keep ourselves healthy. And we are not supposed to completely deny ourselves all physical pleasures.
But if the physical side is allowed to get complete mastery, it completely ignores the spiritual. A person who lives without thinking spiritually will greatly harm his spirituality, without even aware that he is doing it.
So the spiritual side of us needs to be very careful, and has to stand guard all the time against the sort of physical behavior that can ruin our spirituality. Again, that’s not all physical things, just those which are forbidden, and those done to excess without thought.
So we have to keep a careful balance. We do not deny our physical selves, but we must keep a sharp eye. We must constantly use spiritual means to keep ourselves spiritually awake, on guard against forgetting our own spirituality.
It’s sort of like living in a war zone, where you have to keep your weapons with you al the time, and constantly check to make sure none of the enemies are lying in ambush against you.
And the physical has the upper hand, here in this physical universe. The soul is far from home, after all, since the soul comes from Heaven. This world is the physical world, and all the spiritual world that lies within it and keeps it alive is hidden from sight, until you develop that spiritual sense that you use to experience spirituality.
Now, Hashem wants us to be holy and spiritual, because we are the Holy Nation. So Hashem commanded us to hire bodyguards, so to speak. Maybe a better word is “soulguards,” instead of bodyguards. These soulguards are the Mitzvos of the Torah.
Therefore, Hashem commanded us to constantly speak and study Torah; to wear tzitzis, to place mezuzos on our doorposts, to wear tefillin on our heads and arms, etc.
The Torah therefore has Mitzvos for us that guard us all day. We have Mitzvos that we can perform every day from the moment we wake up to the moment we go to sleep: Mitzvos about how we eat, how we speak, what we look at, how to dress, etc.
The Mitzvos, these soulguards, place within us the holiness that we need in order to maintain a high level of spirituality, to keep us away from that which is forbidden.
The Rabbis say that while the Kohanim (priests) in the Holy Temple performed the Mitzvos of their Holy Service they were exempt from keeping (and sometimes forbidden to keep) many of the other Mitzvos (Babylonian Talmud, Zevachim 19a). For they are already protected. The Kohanim are hard at work in a holy environment, doing holy things, and are thus protected from sin. (This is the explanation of the Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 421.)
The Rabbis also teach that every Jewish home must be made into a “small Holy Temple.” The work done in the home is of a level similar to that done by the Kohanim in the Holy Temple.
What work do you think they did in the Holy Temple? If you look at it with a purely physical attitude, you will see only the physical. They slaughtered animals, they caught the blood, they sprinkled the blood, they cut up meat, they cooked the meat, they ate the meat, they cleaned up the place afterward. What did they do that was so holy?
And indeed, if any Kohain took that attitude, you can bet that his actions would not be holy at all, and would completely invalidate his Service in the Temple. A Kohain had to know and be aware that each and every act of Service in the Holy Temple was commanded by Hashem to be a holy act, and therefore when they slaughtered an animal, when they sprinkled the blood, when they cleaned the floor, it was a holy act and part of the Holy Service that Hashem desired.
A great Rabbi once cleaned up a room for a guest, and the guest was concerned because the Rabbi was exerting himself a great deal. He said to the Rabbi, “Why does the Rabbi have to take out the ashtray? Couldn’t a servant do that?”
The Rabbi answered,
“You know that no one was ever allowed into the Holy of Holies, even the High Priest, except once a year, on Yom Kippur. The High Priest went into the Holy of Holies five times that day. One of the times that he went in was to do nothing but clean up the ashes of a fire he was required to light when he had been in earlier that day. The Torah requires the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies just to do that one little act of cleaning! Even that is a Mitzvah.”
Perhaps (and this is my own suggestion and understanding of the matter) this is one of the reasons that women are exempt from many of the time-dependant Mitzvos. Involved as they are in setting up and maintaining a holy Jewish home, they are already surrounded and enveloped in the protection of the Mitzvos.
Please understand that each and every Mitzvah has very complex reasons. Do not assume that the only purpose of each Mitzvah is to protect us from sin. That is just one reason of many, and only in some cases is the primary purpose of of a Mitzvah.
But now your eyes are open to see one the many sublime concepts behind the Mitzvos. The Mitzvos penetrate and envelop us, protect us from sin, and make us holy.
All this is rather succinctly stated in a verse in the Torah: “So that you remember and do all My Commandments, and you will be holy to your G-d” (Numbers 15:40).