One of the 613

Parshas Ki Savo contains the command:1 “And you shall walk in His ways.” The Rambam counts this as one of the 613 mitzvos,2 and explains that it charges us “to resemble Him according to our capacity,” and to follow His ways, as our Sagesstate:3

Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is gracious, so too you should be gracious. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is called merciful, so too you should be merciful. Just as the Holy One, blessed be He, is pious, so too you should be pious.

When outlining the general principles that govern his reckoning of the 613 mitzvos, the Rambam states4 that he does not include charges of a general nature, such as “you shall keep My statutes”5 or “be holy,”6 because they do not involve a specific activity, but instead refer to general patterns of conduct. Seemingly, the mitzvah of emulating G‑d’s ways also seems to be general in nature. Although it contains several particulars — to be gracious, merciful and pious — these particulars are seemingly included in the mitzvah to perform deeds of kindness.7 Were one to interpret the charge to emulate His ways as a more general command, it would encompass all the mitzvos, for they are all G‑d’s ways, and He observes them all.8 Thus the mitzvah to emulate G‑d’s ways does not appear to be a particular command. Why then does the Rambam include it in his reckoning of the mitzvos?

We are forced to conclude that there is a particular dimension to this mitzvah which does not exist in other mitzvos, and that thiscauses the Rambam to include it as one of the 613.9 For example, the commandment:10 “And you shall serve G‑d,” is general in nature, for every commandment involves a deed of service. Nevertheless, this charge is interpreted as referring specifically to prayer, and therefore is included as one of the 613 mitzvos.11

Not to Stand in One Place

The unique dimension of the mitzvah to “walk in G‑d’s ways” is contained in the word “walk,” which indicates progression. A person may observe the Torah and its mitzvos without making any progress. He is merely standing in one place; his spiritual status is no different than it was before he observed the mitzvos.

This mitzvah teaches that a person should observe the mitzvos in a manner that moves him forward. The spur for this spiritual progress is the fact that the mitzvos are “G‑d’s ways,” and so by “walking in them,” one emulates Him. This invests the mitzvos withthe potential to lift a person to a higher level of Divine service.

Mitzvos always elevate and refine the person who observes them, even when he does not observe them in a manner that leads to spiritual progress. Indeed, even when a person observes mitzvos without the proper intent, his spiritual state changes. But these changes are not openly revealed. When a person observes the mitzvah of “walking in G‑d’s ways,” his Divine service brings overt spiritual progress.

Unlimited Progress

It is written:12 “I will make you one who goes among those who stand.” Chassidus13 explains that the phrase “those who stand” refers to the angels, and also to souls before their descent into this material world. It is our observance of the Torah and its mitzvos on the material plane which distinguishes us from them and gives us the ability to progress.

Chassidus further explains14 that both angels and souls are also constantly ascending from level to level. They are, nevertheless, considered to be “standing,” because their progress is gradual; all the levels are related to each other. No matter how high they reach, they have still not gone entirely beyond their original level.

The potential for progress which souls are granted through their descent to this physical plane, by contrast, is unlimited. This concept also applies to the command to “walk in G‑d’s ways.” Our observance of the mitzvos must enable not only measured spiritual progress, but an infinite advance.

Two questions arise:

a) Every created being is by nature limited. How can a person’s limited Divine service bring about unlimited progress?

b) Once a person taps an unlimited level, how can he return to his limited Divine service? Seemingly, this should take him above the mortal plane entirely.

The definition of this commandment as “walking in G‑d’s ways” resolves both these questions, for G‑d represents ultimate transcendence; absolutely nothing is beyond His power,15 and He fuses together opposites, joining limitation and infinity. Therefore a mortal can tap an unlimited potential for progress, yet that unlimited progress will not prevent him from continuing his mortal existence.

Not Bread of Shame

G‑d desires that all of a person’s spiritual peaks come as a result of his own efforts. Giving a person influence from above that is not dependent on his own work is not a complete expression of good. On the contrary, a person will regard it as “bread of shame.”16 It thus follows that the peaks which a person can reach by “walking in G‑d’s ways” must also be attainable through our Divine service. Yet the explanation given above — that our limited Divine service can enable us to reach unlimited peaks — appears to depend on G‑d’s beneficence.

Our spiritual progress does not follow a two-stage pattern. It is not that a person proceeds to the limit of his mortal powers and then G‑d lifts him to unlimited plateaus. Instead, the intent is that because G‑d can fuse opposites, He makes it possible for the limited Divine service of a mortal to reach unlimited heights. Nevertheless, since the unlimited progress which man thus attains does not come about as a result of his own labor, this appears to run contrary to G‑d’s intent that all of man’s spiritual achievements be attained through his own effort.17 This forces us to redefine the concepts stated above so that it is clear that the infinite progress achieved by man comes as a result of his own initiative.

Uncovering Our G‑dly Core

To explain: The mitzvos become G‑d’s ways, invested with His unlimited power, when their observance is motivated by the essence of the soul, which is “an actual part of G‑d.”18 A Jew’s Divine service draws the essence of his soul into a particular mitzvah. This is the intent of the words of the Midrash: “so too, you should be gracious... so too, you should be merciful... so too, you should be pious.” “You” refers to the essence of the soul, expressed in the simple faith and self-sacrifice which transcend intellectual understanding.

When a person’s Divine service is motivated by these qualities, it causes G‑d’s essence to be drawn down and be manifested as graciousness, mercy, and piety. Thus it is man’s efforts that bring about the potential for unlimited progress.19

Body and Soul Together

As mentioned above with regard to our walking in G‑d’s ways, there are two expressions of His unbounded potential:

a) The limited service of a mortal will elevate him to unlimited peaks;

b) Despite being elevated to these peaks, man will retain his mortal frame of reference.

As mentioned above, all of a Jew’s attainments must come about because of his Divine service. It is also man’s efforts that enable him to remain within his limited framework of reference despite being elevated to these peaks.

In truth, the life-energy of a Jew stems from his G‑dly soul;20 it is just that this energy passes through the animal soul in order to give life to the body.

Although the body is a limited physical entity stemming from kelipas nogah, while the soul is “an actual part of G‑d,” the two should ultimately work in harmony. Not only will the body not be negated by the soul, the soul should endow it with life.

Nevertheless, this G‑dly life-energy is hidden, and it is the responsibility of each person to realize and reveal this potential through his Divine service. He should come to the awareness that every one of his limb derives its life-energy from the G‑dly soul.

This will lead to a heightened spiritual consciousness. We see that the body responds immediately to the will of the soul; as soon as a person decides to do something, his body performs that activity.21 Similarly, when a Jew removes the veils that conceal his soul and appreciates the true source of his life-energy, he will spontaneously respond to the soul’s desires. To refer to a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud:22 “When one reaches the prayer modim, one bows as a reflex action.”

When a Jew, through his Divine service, reveals the connection between body and soul, and realizes that his physical body derives its life-energy from the G‑dly soul, he draws down G‑d’s essence. He ascends to the highest peaks, and experiences these spiritual heights while living in a material body.

To Cling To Him

Not everyone is able to give himself over to G‑d in such a complete fashion as to cause all the limbs of his body to spontaneously respond to the desires of the G‑dly soul. For this reason, the command to “walk in G‑d’s ways” is prefaced (— and the sequence is important —) by the command:23 “And you shall cling to Him,” interpreted24 to mean “cling to the sages and their students.” The Hebrew term for “sages,” chachamim, indicates self-transcendence, for chochmah, חכמה, can be divided into the words כח מה, the potential for bittul.25 This makes a person a chariot for G‑dliness, an instrument of G‑d’s will with no independent desires.

When a person clings to the sages, they serve as his head,26 as it were. By clinging to them it is considered as if he clings to the Divine Presence itself,26 and his body becomes a medium for the light of the soul, as explained above.27

The commandment to cling to G‑d is of a general nature, implying that one should attach oneself to Him by clinging to the sages and their students. This gives one the ability to follow G‑d’s infinite ways. Nevertheless, “walking in G‑d’s ways” means observing the mitzvos, for the mitzvos draw down G‑d’s essence.

By observing the mitzvos because they are G‑d’s ways, and underscoring that this is the manner in which we can resemble Him, the essential G‑dliness vested in the mitzvos is revealed. “Clinging to G‑d” leads to “walking in His ways,” making this an ongoing process, for “the righteous have no rest... as it is written:28 ‘And they shall go from strength to strength,’”29 until they reach the ultimate peak — “the day which is all Shabbos and rest for life everlasting.”30

(Adapted from Sichos Yud Shvat. 5721)