Yet another area where the Rebbe applies the collusion of the divine and the human in Torah is in his in exploration of the essence and function of the mitzvoth, the divine commandments of the Torah.

Mitzvah means “commandment.” Wherever the Torah contains an instruction from G‑d to us—“Remember the day of Shabbath to sanctify it,”1 “You shall bind then as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as phylacteries between your eyes,”2 “Open your hand to your brethren, to your poor,”3 etc.—this is a mitzvah. As noted above, the sages identify 613 mitzvoth in the text of the Written Torah, whose details and particulars are expounded in the Oral Torah. The Kabalists and the Chasidic masters note that the word mitzvah also means “bond” and “connection,” as the act of a mitzvah connects its human actor with its divine commander.4

The connection that a mitzvah establishes is only because G d desired that it should constitute the fulfillment of His will

In a number of essays and talks,5 the Rebbe presents two perspectives on the mitzvah. The first perspective sees the most significant thing about a mitzvah as the fact that the person performing it fulfills a divine commandment. Viewed in this light, the content and nature of the act are of secondary significance. G‑d is infinite, and the human being, and anything he or she does or achieves, is finite; so if the act of a mitzvah establishes a connection between its divine commander and the person who fulfills the command, this is not because of any intrinsic significance that action might possess, but only because G‑d desired that it should constitute the fulfillment of His will. In the words of Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, “Had we been commanded by G‑d to chop wood” (i.e., an act devoid of any spiritual utility), it would be no less a fulfillment of a divine desire than the most meaningful and enlightening deed.6

From this perspective, there are no essential differences between mitzvoth. One mitzvah may entail tremendous sacrifice and many years of spiritual preparation to fulfill, while another mitzvah might be carried out with a single, effortless action; ultimately, however, no human accomplishment can be said to be more significant in relation to G‑d than any other.7 What is significant is the fact that this action was commanded by G‑d and deemed by Him to constitute the fulfillment of His will—a quality which every mitzvah shares equally.8

This essential synonymy of all divine commands is reflected the sayings of the sages, “Be as diligent with a minor mitzvah as with a major one, as you cannot know the rewards of the mitzvoth”;9 and “Do not sit and weigh the commandments of the Torah.”10 This is also the basis of the halachic rule that “one who is occupied with doing a mitzvah is absolved from a different mitzvah” (for example, one who is caring for a sick person during the festival of Sukoth is not obligated to eat in the sukah).11 Because all mitzvoth share a singular essence—fulfillment of the divine will—one who is actively performing one mitzvah need not interrupt it to fulfill another, even if the second mitzvah is ostensibly a “greater” one, since he already is in essence doing it.12

But there is also another perspective on the mitzvoth: the mitzvoth as tools for the perfection and refinement of human life. In the words of Bereishith Rabbah:

It is written, “G‑d, His way is perfect, the word of G‑d is refined…”13 Said Rav: The mitzvoth were given in order to refine the human being. For what does G‑d care if one slaughters (an animal) from the throat or one slaughters from the nape? But the mitzvoth were given in order to refine the human being.14

From this perspective, there are differences between mitzvoth; in fact, no two mitzvoth are the same. The human being is multifaceted: we have positive traits that need to be developed, and negative traits that need to be curbed and sublimated; we have a spiritual self and a material self; an intellectual life, an emotional life, a family life, a social life, a financial life, a political life. And everything we do is influenced by the particulars of time and space. Because all mitzvoth share a singular essence, one who is actively performing one mitzvah need not interrupt it to fulfill another mitzvahSo any program whose purpose is to “refine the human being” must address itself to each of these individual components of human life, to each on its individual terms. Accordingly, the mitzvoth of the Torah include positive precepts and negative prohibitions; mitzvoth involving thought, mitzvoth involving feeling, mitzvoth pertaining to speech, and mitzvoth requiring action; mitzvoth governing diet, dress, marital relations, agriculture, home construction, business and governance; mitzvoth pertaining to specific days of the year, mitzvoth pertaining to specific times of the day, mitzvoth pertaining to specifics structures and domains in physical space. Thus, there are 613 mitzvoth—248 positive precepts and 365 prohibitions—corresponding to the 248 organs and limbs of the human body and its 365 veins.15 On this level, there are “major” mitzvoth and “minor” mitzvoth—just as there are major and minor organs in the human body, and major and minor components to human life—as each mitzvah refines and transforms a different aspect of the person who fulfills it.

This, says the Rebbe, is the deeper meaning of the well-known mishnah:

Rabbi Chananya ben Akashia said: G‑d wanted to give merit to the people of Israel; therefore He multiplied for them Torah and mitzvoth. As it is written (Isaiah 42:21): “G‑d desires for the sake of His righteousness; He will make Torah greater and more powerful.”16

This mishnah, the Rebbe explains, addresses a fundamental question about the Torah and its commandments: why is there such a multiplicity of Torah and mitzvoth?

Every mitzvah, and every concept in Torah, is different from every other mitzvah or concept, and at times is its very opposite. We have a general distinction between positive mitzvoth and negative mitzvoth; differences between “testimonials,” statutes” and “laws”;17 and finally, we have 613 distinct mitzvoth, each with its own characteristics, meanings and purpose… The same is the case with Torah learning. Every idea in Torah has four levels of interpretation—plain meaning, allusion, exegesis and mystical. Each has “forty-nine sides of purity” and “forty-nine sides of impurity.” There are “seventy paces to the Torah,” and each aspect of Torah has 600,000 meanings.

This requires explanation. The Torah and its mitzvoth were given by the One G‑d, and their purpose is to draw down and reveal the truth that “G‑d is one and His names is one”18 —the absolute singularity of G‑d. Obviously, then, our service of G‑d should be permeated with this objective: every mitzvah we do should express the singular goal of achieving the union of the observer of the mitzvah with the absolute singularity of G‑d. So, too, with our study of Torah—its purpose is that through studying and comprehending the divine wisdom, we unite with the Giver of the Torah....19

Any program whose purpose is to ‘refine the human being’ must address each of the individual components of human life

So, if the purpose and function of Torah and mitzvoth is unity, why are they themselves of such a multiplicitous and diverse format?20

The answer, says the Rebbe, lies in the opening words of the mishnah, “G‑d wanted to give merit to the people of Israel…” The Hebrew word used here for “to give merit,” לזכות (le-zakoth), also means “to refine.” “G‑d wanted to refine the people of Israel,” the mishnah is saying, “therefore He multiplied for them Torah and mitzvoth.”

Indeed, the Rebbe goes on to explain, the function of the Torah and mitzvoth is to unite us, and the world in which we live, with G‑d. However, there are two distinct ways in which this union is achieved. The first is through “abnegation” (bitul), and the second, through “refinement” (zichuch).

“Abnegation,” because the cardinal truth of reality is that “there is none else besides Him”21 —that G‑d is one and only reality. Everything else is but the manifestation of G‑d’s desire that it be. Hence the truth that “G‑d is one and His name is one”: G‑d is the one and only reality, as the entirety of creation is His “one name,” His singular self-expression. The fragmented and multiplicitous reality we experience is a concealment and distortion of this truth. Torah and mitzvoth are the means by which we dissolve this concealment and reveal the divine singularity. When the human mind is transformed into a receptacle of divine wisdom, when human life is remade as an exercise in the fulfillment of the divine will, we become one with G‑d.

In this sense, studying Torah is an act of “abnegation,” as the human mind and intellect become an “empty vessel” to receive the divine wisdom. Performing a mitzvah is an act of “abnegation,” as the manifold desires and aspirations which constitute the human self give way to the singular goal of fulfilling the divine desire.

Hence the question: Would this objective not be better served if the whole of Torah consisted of one great idea and one great mitzvah, which we would devote our entire being to mastering and fulfilling? In truth, the whole of Torah is one idea; all mitzvoth are, in essence, a single mitzvah. But this is its deeper, underlying truth. On the surface, Torah is comprised of myriads of ideas, each with myriads levels of understanding, corresponding to the multiple forms that the human intellect assumes and the multiple pathways it follows; and it has 613 mitzvoth, corresponding to every aspect of our existence. Why is the Torah conforming to the very concealment and distortion it comes to debunk?

Why is the Torah conforming to the very concealment and distortion it comes to debunk?

This is where the second method of unification comes in. Torah and its commandments unite us with G‑d not only by abnegating the multiplicity of the created reality, but also by refining it.

With the abnegation approach, human nature is made to naught and thus unites with its Creator. With the refinement approach, we retain our natural characteristics, yet these selfsame characteristics are refined and perfected through our study of Torah and our fulfillment of mitzvoth. The divine unity is revealed, not because the multiplicity of the created state has been dissolved, but rather because that selfsame multiplicity has become saturated with and perfected by the divine wisdom and will.

Otherwise stated: With both approaches, Torah and mitzvoth unite us with G‑d. But with the “abnegation” approach, this unity is achieved on G‑d’s terms, so to speak: we surrender all that makes us what we are, in order to allow His reality to permeate our being. With the “refinement” approach, the unity is achieved on our terms: our own multiplicitous existence is enhanced and perfected through its study of Torah and its fulfillment of the mitzvoth.22