“The essential thing is the deed.”
(Ethics of the Fathers)

Torah is often referred to as Torat Chaim—a “living Torah.” It is Torah that defines Judaism and the Jewish people and it is their life and essence. In the Torah there are 613 Mitzvot, and in this chapter we shall take a closer look at the nature of the Mitzvot and their utility as a benefit to man, as a tool to refine the creation, and a medium to connect man to G‑d.

Mitzvot as a Benefit to Man

Mitzvah observance is the path to the good life in this world. G‑d, the Creator of Man and the Creator and Master of the whole world, surely has the best qualifications to know what is good for Man, and for the world in which he lives. G‑d has not withheld this knowledge from us, for G‑d is good and it is the intrinsic nature of good to be good. In His infinite kindness He has communicated to us that if a person conducts his life in a certain way he will have a healthy soul operating in a healthy body, and it will be good for him in this world and in the World to Come. It is plain common sense that in order to have a good life one should follow the directives of the Creator of Man, even if there are aspects of those directives which superficially seem irrational or restrictive.

In truth there are many things in daily life which a person accepts and follows without question, even if he be a highly gifted intellectual with a searching nature. For example, a person will board a plane without first having researched aerodynamics to verify that it is safe to fly in and that it will bring him to his destination at the scheduled time. Similarly, if a person has a headache he will not complete a doctorate in biochemistry before taking an aspirin. Rather, since the results of the drug have already been verified, he will take the pill, get rid of the headache, and then if he wants to, understand how the wonder pill worked. The same is true regarding spiritual health. It is quite certain that if a human being would live long enough, and would have the necessary capacities to make all sorts of experiments without distraction, he would undoubtedly arrive at the very same conclusions which we already find in the Torah—the need to observe Jewish dietary laws, Shabbat, etc. The reason for this is that the Torah is the truth and the ultimate good for a person. Stated simply, the Mitzvot are not a set of rules that have been given to impede or restrict the freedom of Man. Rather, they are the pathway to a good life. An example of the benefits for Man, as well as the goodness of G‑d, is found in the mandatory day of rest. A person who works seven days a week leaves no time to recharge his spiritual batteries. Even limited leisure time is often devoted to keeping the body fit at gyms and at golf courses while the soul goes sadly neglected. To most people, the seemingly drastic restrictions of Shabbat appear to be limiting factors. In truth, those restrictions create an atmosphere that allow, and in some cases, gently force a person into a totally different set of circumstances that enhance personal and familial spiritual growth. In fact, this ancient mandate has found popularity in popular science, where what has been discovered, after years of research, is what Jews have known for thousands of years—one day of rest a week has benefits to the body, mind, and soul.

The Sages say “there is no free man except one who engages in the study of Torah.” This simply means that the Torah frees a person from personal restraints. Superficially, this seems surprising, for the Torah places many restrictions on a person.

The answer is that every generation and age has their form of bondage; an “Egypt.” Some people are slaves to their jobs, others to the desires of their body. Some worship money, others worship power. Torah is the antidote that liberates a person from personal bondage. It maneuvers a person into the enviable position of being able to maximize the goodness of this world, as well as the next. G‑d is not a ruthless dictator who insists on His subjects keeping a meaningless routine. G‑d is benevolent, and wishes to bestow good upon the creation. The greatest act of Divine benevolence was to give us a living Torah, a pathway through life which leads us to the greatest good a human may achieve both for his body and soul.

In short, if a person wants to have good relationships with his parents, spouse, or children he should follow the directives of the Torah. Knowing that what we do here on Earth has effects in the higher realms, we should do all we can to follow the directives of G‑d. Spiritually, if one wants to have a healthy body, one should follow the Jewish dietary laws. To create a healthy atmosphere at home, one should create a home where Torah is studied and Mitzvot are kept. If one wants family dialogue, one should have a Friday night table where words of Torah are discussed. If one wishes for Divine benevolence, one must dispense charity to the needy. By emulating G‑d’s ways and following the Divine example, Man elevates his status and creates pathways not only to bliss in the World to Come, but also to a meaningful and fulfilling life in this world.

Mitzvot—to Refine the Creation

In addition to the material benefits for Man in this world, the Midrash states that the purpose for the Mitzvot is the refinement of creatures. This includes the person who is doing the Mitzvah, and the object with which the Mitzvah is performed. Let us examine how the Mitzvah affects the person who is performing it.

Perhaps the most elementary purpose of Mitzvot is to place a yoke on the Nefesh HaBehamit and channel its considerable energies in a positive direction. The first condition of the Mitzvot is Man’s absolute submission to the laws of G‑d, in Hebrew, “Kabalat Ol Malchut Shomayim” (submitting to the rule of the Kingdom of Heaven). This was expressed prior to the receiving of the Torah at Sinai when the Jews said “Naaseh Venishma”—we will do it and we will hear it, placing acceptance before understanding. This also explains the expression Avodat Hashem. The root of the word “Avodat” is similar to the word Ibud, which, in connection with leather skins, refers to tanning. In the tanning process, a very coarse skin is taken and transformed by working it into a supple piece of leather or parchment. What was coarse has become refined. Service means taking a coarse Nefesh HaBehamit and refining it. The Mitzvot are a disciplinary code that places a yoke on the powerful animalistic side of man, channeling its considerable energies to the service of G‑d.

On a deeper level the Nefesh HaBehamit stems from Kelipat Nogah. Nogah means light, and therefore as the name suggests, Kelipat Nogah is a Kelipah that can be fostered, illuminated, and elevated. When a person does a Mitzvah which requires physical exertion, the entire Nefesh HaBehamit is utilized in the service of G‑d and thereby elevated. A great example of this is the Mitzvah of Tzedakah (charity). When a person works hard all day to make a living and then they give away part of what they have earned to Tzedakah, in reality what they are giving away is the energy that they have invested into making that money. In this respect Tzedakah is an excellent representation of all Mitzvot.

Furthermore, not only is the physical power of the hand that gives the Tzedakah elevated from Kelipat Nogah to Kedushah, but also all the food and drink that gave one the strength to perform the Mitzvah are elevated. Kabbalah states that the community of Israel, comprising 600,000 souls, is the general source of vitality for the world as a whole, for the world was created for the sake of these souls. To each of those souls (which are further subdivided into 600,000 sub-souls) is designated one six-hundred-thousandth part of the entire world to refine and elevate. This elevation happens when one eats, drinks, and utilizes one’s dwelling for the service of G‑d. In this respect the entire part of the world which is apportioned to this soul become a true Dirah BeTachtonim. We can see this ripple effect in an act as simple as eating bread on Shabbat.

On Friday night, one rests the ten fingers on the two Challahs (bread used on Shabbat and holidays) and recites the blessing Hamotzi (“who brings forth sustenance from the Earth”). Contemplate the following: the Challah is the product of a huge chain of production. The farmer planted the grain, irrigated, and weeded the field. He then harvested the field, and the grain is taken by truck to a granary where it is ground and shipped to the baker. The baker now combines the wheat flour with the various other ingredients and bakes the Challah in an oven powered by gas or electricity. The number of people involved at each stage of this chain of production runs into the thousands—the farmer, the field workers, the driver of the trucks that delivered the ingredients to the bakery, the baker, etc. When a Jew lifts the two Challahs and proclaims G‑d as the provider of the bread, he has elevated this entire chain.

As mentioned previously not only does the person become refined, but also the object with which the Mitzvah is performed is transformed. In the post-Sinai era, when the divide between the upper and lower realms has been dissolved, it is possible to transform the hide of a cow into parchment, and make it into a Torah scroll, mezuzah, or tefillin. This means that not only is Mankind the beneficiary of the Mitzvot, but also animals, plants, and inanimate objects.

Man was last in deed but first in thought when it came to the order of creation. Although preceded by the mineral, vegetable, and animal kingdoms, it is Man standing at the apex of the pyramid of Creation and it is Man that has the capacity to elevate and transform all of creation for a higher purpose. When one fulfills one’s duty and mission in life, not only is the one’s goal in the scheme of Creation reached, but also helps the rest of the world attain perfection.

Mitzvot—a Connection with G‑d

Although Torah and Mitzvot have been given for the benefit of Man and the refining of the Creation, there is an infinitely greater quality with which G‑d has endowed the Mitzvot. This is the quality of uniting Man with G‑d, for by giving Man a set of Mitzvot to carry out in his daily life, G‑d has made it possible for Man to thereby attach himself to his Creator and transcend the limitations of time and space. We have previously explained that all the worlds are a product of G‑d’s will. Mitzvot are the will of G‑d. The will of G‑d is the cause of this world, and therefore the Mitzvot are the source of life.

The Torah and Mitzvot constitute the bridge which spans the abyss separating the Creator from the created, enabling the human being to rise and attach himself to G‑dliness. This bridge has been designed by G‑d, for only He can span that abyss. It is quite impossible for a limited being to create his own bridge to the Infinite, for whatever bridge he may build, however spiritual it may be, it will still be limited according to the parameters of the created mind. This explains why a person cannot create his own path to G‑d independent of Torah and Mitzvot.

The beauty of Torah and Mitzvot is that through simple everyday actions that are well within the reach of normal individuals, every person can connect with the Divine and transform this world into an abode for G‑d. The Torah is not in heaven, rather, “it is exceedingly near to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it.” G‑d created Man to be within the material world and to permeate and elevate it with G‑dliness through the performance of Mitzvot. As previously mentioned, the word Mitzvah, in addition to meaning a commandment, means a connection. “Connection” denotes proximity, whereas “commandment” denotes distance. Interestingly, these two dimensions manifest themselves in Mitzvah performance. On the one hand, a person keeps a Mitzvah like a servant before his master out of awe. At the same time, we are like a beloved child serving our father with love and feeling.

In the previous chapter, we discussed Torah as Divine wisdom, the unity of Torah and G‑d, and Mitzvot as the Divine will. The essence of G‑d and His will and wisdom are one.

Therefore, when we study Torah and keep the Mitzvot we are in absolute communion with G‑d. Although this Divine will is clothed within the material, the union with G‑d is not affected by materiality. Hassidism calls the Mitzvot garments of the soul and Torah food of the soul. Just as physical food and clothing are necessary for the welfare of the body, so are spiritual food and clothing necessary for the welfare of the soul. When Man observes the Mitzvot in deed, discusses the Mitzvot in speech, and concentrates and grasps all that his intellect is able to grasp of the Torah in thought, then Man’s soul is fully clothed in the Mitzvot and is in perfect unity with G‑d.

Furthermore, when Man performs a Mitzvah, he becomes a vehicle to the Divine will and evokes Divine benevolence upon himself and the world. The Tikkunnei Zohar states that the 248 commandments are the 248 “organs” of G‑d. Just as every organ in the human body is a repository for the particular faculty of the soul that is vested in that organ (e.g. the eye is the receptacle for the faculty of sight, and the ear for the faculty of hearing) so too is every commandment a channel and a repository for the Divine will that is vested and expressed in that particular commandment. When performing a Mitzvah, one draws G‑dly life and sustenance into all the worlds, and when the organs of the human body, which correspond to the number of Mitzvot, perform a Mitzvah, they become a vehicle for the Divine will. The Mitzvot in general represent G‑d’s will, and each individual commandment is an expression of a particular aspect of this will. Each Mitzvah evokes a particular response commensurate with that commandment. When we give to charity, G‑d stretches forth His hand to bestow kindness upon the world. When we look compassionately at the less fortunate, He looks compassionately at us and the world around us. In fact, whatever G‑d commands us to do in the Torah, He does Himself. A similar Divine reaction is evoked when we abstain from prohibited acts. For example, when a person suppresses his urge to gossip, the forces of evil are subdued. Even the smallest subjugation of the Sitra Achra causes a great diffusion of Divine Light in all the worlds.

The Divine Light one draws upon oneself through fulfillment of Mitzvot is called the Shechinah. When one studies Torah, his soul and the two inner garments of speech and thought are absorbed within the Divine Light, causing the Shechinah to rest upon his Divine soul. But in order for the Shechinah to rest upon his body and Nefesh HaBehamit, to fulfill the purpose of Dirah BeTachtonim, it is necessary to fulfill the practical Mitzvot performed by the body itself in deed. In this way the actual power of the body engaged in this act is absorbed into the Divine Light and will and unites with Him in perfect unity. As previously mentioned, this explains why Mitzvah performance takes priority over learning Torah if the commandment cannot be done by anyone else.

The deepest level of Mitzvah performance is not so much to cleave to G‑d and emulate His ways, which is a natural desire of the Nefesh Elokit, but is rather the act of total connection with the Divine will itself. In chassidic terminology it is nullified to the Baal HaRatzon—“surrender to the author of the will,” rather than to the particulars of the will.

Rabbi Schneur Zalman summed this point up by stating that if G‑d had asked the Jews to chop wood all day, then we would have become a nation of woodchoppers. The meaning of this statement is that even if chopping wood would have no material or spiritual benefit, we would chop wood because what is important is not what we have been asked to do, but the fact that G‑d asked us to do it. The motivation for keeping Mitzvot on this level is not for any type of reward—material or spiritual. It is simply to fulfill the will of G‑d like a simple servant. On this level of service, one performs one’s service not because one may be naturally inclined to do a particular Mitzvah, but rather because one wishes to obey the Divine will. A person may be naturally diligent and find it easy to sit and learn Torah for great lengths of time. An observer may be astounded at the devotion this scholar has to his studies.

However, in truth this may not be a true indication of his devotion to G‑d. The very same scholar may, for example, find it difficult to entertain a guest. True demonstration of Avodat Hashem is when a person “serves G‑d” equally and with the same enthusiasm and fervor in an area in which they are not naturally inclined. If the scholar would serve a guest—which he finds difficult and cumbersome—with the same alacrity, devotion, and joy as in his learning, that would be a true demonstration that he performs the Mitzvot simply because it is the will of G‑d.

This point may be illustrated in the signs of a Kosher animal.

An animal is only deemed Kosher if it has split hooves and chews the cud. In the spiritual dimension, this means that a person’s service of G‑d is only Kosher if it has split hooves, meaning the service is done equally both in those areas of natural ability and talent and those areas which come difficult.

Furthermore, this cannot only be demonstrated on an odd occasion, rather it must be in a way of chewing the cud, which implies constantly performing the Mitzvot not because one has a natural tendency to do so, rather because that is the will of G‑d. Such service demonstrates true self abnegation.

In Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman states that in the days of old, students would review their studies 100 times as standard.

Consequently, a student who would just review 100 times has fulfilled his obligation, but not necessarily showed true devotion.

The student who would review 101 times is a true servant of G‑d. That extra time when the student has to break his habit is the step beyond the natural, a step out of the creation, into the Creator. That is true service.