God's love for Avraham gave us Moshe
Relationship is simultaneously the most difficult and most important aspect of life, and therefore we need help in building it. In this source, the Rambam makes it clear that God has no need for the commandments we do, but rather desires a relationship with us. Out of love for Avraham came Moshe the lawgiver.
The mitzvot as a tool for faithful relationship
Though we idealize loving actions as motivated purely by love for the other, the reality is that there are aspects of love which we learn through procedure. Hence we teach children to do the right things before they feel or understand them (be kind, say sorry, etc…) because we hope that in their maturity they will come to see these as the ways to form healthy and strong relationships.
The source from Isaiah below opens with the statement that God does not need our sacrifices, which seems to contradict the entire book of Leviticus. This only makes sense if we recall that God does need our mitzvot - they are an invitation to relationship with an Other whom we cannot understand on our own.
Faithful relationships find expression through empathetic actions whose goal is connection to other. Actions driven by the hope of getting what we want, even in exchange, are essentially about self-gratification - hence the prophet's cry "Alas, she has become a harlot..." This is what we call an individual who engages in behavior only for some benefit, the paragon of an unfaithful lover.
Recall that this section is from the Haftorah reading on Tisha B’Av. This is because the fundamental breakdown between God and Israel is not a failure to follow the rules but rather the loss of loving and caring relationship expressed through doing the mitzvot.
Context is critical for understanding what the mitzvot are
Actions only have value within the context in which they were given, therefore we must maintain an awareness of the context in which the mitzvot were given in order to perform them properly.
The following text is God's preamble to giving the Ten Commandments.
Notice the weight given to the requirement to present the mitzvot within their specific context, as emphasized by Rashi's citations of the midrash.
It is essential that Israel hear the mitzvot with this preamble because without it they might think that the mitzvot are a series of laws rather than an act of love. God is essentially saying "You must know this before I command you anything – I am giving the commandments in order to be in a loving, covenantal relationship with you."
The labeling of Am Yisrael as a kingdom of kohanim is especially significant. 'Priest' is a poor translation of this word. The kohanim are those who come close to God to serve in the Temple, and here God is telling Am Yisrael that through the mitzvot we can become custodians of God's kingdom on Earth. This makes it clear that God has very high expectations of our capabilities and gave us the miztvot in order to become all that we can be in relationship with the Divine.
The miztvot help us be all that we can be
One of the primary challenges to a fulfilling life of observance is that we often forget that the mitzvot come to us from the same source as all the events of life. Everything which we experience in life, no matter how painful, has the potential to teach us how to be who we can be - the mitzvot are no different.
We may struggle to understand how any given mitzvot can do this, and that is why many of our Sages treated them as beyond our ability to give them reasons. Even those who sought for the reason behind mitzvot called them ta'ame hamitzvot, which can be translated as reasons for the commandments or as their taste. This comes to teach us that understanding can add spice to our fulfillment of the mitzvot, but the doing is the essential substance. As we said above, mitzvot are opportunities for relationship, tools for self-development. If we do even one out of love, with purity of intention and no ulterior motive, then we have achieved the whole point.
That is what the Rambam teaches in this source:
Mitzvot are for our own good
Rules are important in love – everything matters more in love, not less. The details of our behavior in relation to the one we love are critical. This is why God gave us the commandments, not so that we obey but so that we learn to treat our every action as an expression of care and an acknowledgment of the importance of the One with whom we are in relation.
Love means heightened alert because of heightened care. As with people so with God. If someone says that what you do has no consequences then it means that they don’t care, which itself means that they no longer love you (see here for a powerful saying from the Sages on this idea.) That is why there are real consequences for breaking the covenant. God will never give up on us and lower the bar. That is part the power of the following source - 'What does God ask of you?' Everything. Not just our obedience, but all of us - a full relationship.
God wants a relationship with us, and therefore tells us to keep the mitzvot for our own good. He wants to give us the self confidence and the depth of selfhood which will allow for healthy, loving relationship.
The mitzvot are the opportunity of a lifetime, an invitation to relationship with the Divine, but they are the beginning - not the end. Now that you have spent some time learning about the commandments, take a look at this final source from the Rambam. Here we encounter his grand vision that everything we do is in order to become whole, complete human beings who can know God.