Is having good character traits one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah? If you read the Five Books of Moses you may struggle to find such a commandment, but Maimonides includes it in his count.1 He argues that when the Torah urges us to “walk in His ways,”2 it means that we are obligated to emulate G‑d’s noble characteristics to the best of our ability.

Maimonides quotes the early Midrashic text, the Sifrei:

Just as G‑d is called merciful, so too, you must be merciful. Just as G‑d is called kind, so too, you must be kind. Just as G‑d is called righteous, so too, you must be righteous. Just as G‑d is called pious, so too, you must be pious.3

There is a significant problem with this position, however. Maimonides4 makes it clear that a “general commandment” – an overarching rule that encompasses a multitude of smaller obligations – can never be counted among the 613 mitzvot. Living one’s life ethically is surely the dictionary definition of a general commandment. Therefore, according to Maimonides’ own rules, it should not be possible for “walking in His ways” to be counted as one of the 613.

This question was presented to Maimonides’ own son, the illustrious Rabbi Abraham. He acknowledged that the verses that implore us to “walk in His ways” often employ the broadest of terms. But he insists that the sages already defined the obligation to walk in G‑d’s ways as a reference to cultivating virtuous character traits, and not to good behavior in the wider sense. As such, he argued, it is incorrect to call it a general commandment, since it only addresses ethical matters such as compassion and kindness. This makes it sufficiently narrow to be regarded as one of the 613 commandments.

But what about the well known Bibilical exhortation to “love your fellow as yourself”?5 What does that commandment demand of us if not to act with kindness and compassion? Maimonides himself explicitly says so! “We are commanded to have mercy and compassion, to be charitable and kind, which is what is stated by the verse ‘You shall love your fellow as yourself.’ ” But if compassion and kindness are already covered, what does the instruction to “walk in His ways” tell us that we don’t already know?

To answer this question, the Rebbe introduces a foundational concept in Jewish theology: acting ethically is not sufficient; intention is vital. While the verse to love others covers the practical obligation to treat people with compassion and kindness, the commandment to walk in His ways obligates us to do so with the explicit intention of emulating G‑d.

Some may act with compassion because it seems logical, but that is inadequate. Others may act kindly in compliance with the commandment to love others, but that too is unsatisfactory. According to Maimonides, the Rebbe explains, when the Torah obligates us to “walk in His ways” it means that our intention when being kind and compassionate must be specifically to emulate G‑d’s ways.

Maimonides bases this ruling on the way the earlier sages interpreted the verse to “walk in His ways” to mean, “Just as G‑d is called merciful, so too, you must be merciful. Just as G‑d is called kind, so too, you must be kind…” The rabbis seem to be saying quite clearly that the idea is not just to be merciful and kind, but to do so in order to emulate our Creator.

But why, we may ask, should our intention matter? Don’t our actions matter most?

It turns out that the motivation behind our behavior actually does make a huge difference.

In his code, Maimonides adds an additional aspect to the meaning of walking in G‑d’s ways. He sets out at length how a person should avoid extremes of any sort, opting instead to pursue a more moderate path. A person should not indulge, nor deny his basic needs. A person should avoid getting annoyed over trivialities, but also not gloss over important matters.

Maimonides concludes this point by saying: “We are commanded to walk in these intermediate paths – and they are good and straight paths – as it states: ‘you shall walk in His ways.’ ”

One may ask: What is the connection between taking the moderate route and walking in G‑d’s footsteps?

In his Guide for the Perplexed6 , Maimonides explains why avoiding extremes is important. Extremes, he says, are profoundly illogical. Going too far towards one side of anything is proof that the person is motivated by his emotions, rather than by an understanding of what is right. G‑d, Maimonides adds, is not subject to emotions and is simply the essence of truth. Thus, someone whose conduct is an imitation of G‑d’s perfect ways will always steer towards the truth and avoid wild extremes.

That is why it is important that one’s intention and goal in acting with kindness and compassion is to walk in G‑d’s ways. This is how a person avoids making poor choices, driven by their emotions, and instead remains focused on the morally superior middle way.

And so it turns out that we have a revolutionary idea: Aside from the commandment to act with compassion and kindness, there is a commandment to do so with the appropriate motivation. The reason: the only way to ensure that one truly behaves ethically is to ensure one’s goal in doing so is to model one’s own conduct after of highest virtues attributed to the Almighty.

Having seen how a seemingly cultured nation could be driven to perpetrate the ghastliest crimes during the Nazi era, it is clear that we need morality to be inspired by Divine purpose. Without an explicit commitment and a sense of obligation to “walk in His ways,” our own ethical sense is far too corruptible.

Adapted from Likutei Sichot, vol. 34, Parshat Ki Tavo II.