Divine Guidance Book Chapter 1

An Introduction to the Mitzvoth

Genesis 2:15     15 The Lord God took the human and settled him in the garden of Eden to farm it and to take care of it.

Hosea 10:12     12 Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap faithful love; break up your unplanted ground, for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you.

A.      To Work and to Guard

1.      From Genesis 2:15, we see that Adam is placed in the Garden to work it and guard it. What does that mean? For us, while this has physical dimensions, it is principally spiritual and ethical. In the Garden, sages see the rain as Torah study and seeds are the performance of the mitzvoth (Bava Kamma 17a). These produce life-giving crops.

2.      Hosea 10:12. When one righteously and kindly uses resources to help others, one reaps benefits in the form of gratitude and growth as a better person. This growth is seen as well as having an effect in the heavens just as corruption has an infecting impact beyond oneself.

3.      The commandments that we perform, God plants in His heaven. (Midrash Shocher Tov 114).

4. Another sage sees God as planting the seed but its success or failure is dependent on man. A seed can, with proper care, become a great tree, in Eden or in the garden of each and every one of us, in our physical and spiritual lives. It’s ours to work and guard.

5. This spiritual mission carries over to mankind, to us, undiminished by exile and not changed by human shortcomings. So, this idea of understanding God’s expectations and living true to them is the working and guarding we do in our lives, in the time and space of our lives. 

B. Mankind and the Mitzvoth 

1.  Fundamental notion - the body is not the essence of a human being. It covers the inner substance - the spiritual self, the soul. It has been taught that the Torah was given to human beings to meet their broad human needs, but with a particular emphasis on the needs of their souls. The scientific details may be off, but the concept fits the idea that the Torah contains positive mitzvoth that would correspond to the 248 body parts and 365 prohibitions that would correspond to the sinews and blood vessels that connect the body parts and help them function. This adds up, of course, to 613.

2. Now, I don’t want to press this point too much, but I do want to stress the idea that the mitzvoth work through our bodies, our bodies, in service of our souls, that when we live by them we elevate ourselves.

3. We’ve talked a great deal about the Bible’s concern about sin. Needless to say, the mitzvoth have a lot to do with arming us to avoid and, when needed, deal with treating and getting past sin. It’s believed that sin causes holiness to ooze out of us, robbing us of soul, even, unless checked, causing spiritual death. Living as God expects, it is thought, strengthens/nourishes the soul, protects holiness.

4. These mitzvoth are all about both faith AND action. They’re ways of living in the world. As we’ve discussed, there is no faith/works dichotomy in the Hebrew Bible. Our faith is grounded in the principle that the God in Whom we have faith expects us to live in the world in His ways. In certain instances, as we have discussed, these expectations inform us to act by abstaining from action. In others, we are informed to take action. Thus, the negative and the positive, mitzvoth.

5. As we discussed with body/clothes/soul, the mitzvoth have surface characteristics as well as deeper, “Heavenly” components. Since many Jews and virtually all Christians either do not follow or have different views about following the surface intentions of many of the mitzvoth, we’ll be on the constant lookout for the deeper meaning.

6. Without question, the traditional view among Jews, and really Christians, too, is that these were given as a prescription for Jews. I don’t really want to fight that view. But I have this hypothesis: I believe there is a deeper meaning in these Godly expectations that represent a guide for living a good life, with value to all people, especially believers in God. This is why I am focused so on this study, why I am delighted to study it with you, and why I am especially pleased that you’ve created space for this study during the year. 

C. Heaven and Earth

1.      In our lives, we are concerned about that which is “beneath the sun” and “above the sun.”

2. Note the number of prohibitions equals 365. Much has been made of the fact that this corresponds to the number of days in a year. One lesson that is drawn from this fact is that one must be vigilant to God’s word each day, vigilant to avoid straying from the path and the decline that involves. We must remember temptation never rests, nor must our duty to avoid it, to stay true.

3. Yet, we also have the capacity to advance. We not only resist temptation; we rush to serve positively in ways pleasing to God. We do this out of love and, it is taught, we grow by doing so.

4. This service to God involves, thus, both duty/obedience and love. And, as mentioned already, is a mission that is a matter with a Heavenly purpose.

5. No one is perfect. No one lives according to all these mitzvoth or any other prescribed ways of life. But I do think God has expectations of us, as to how we live, in faith and action, and that we should try with all our might, heart, and soul to live in sync with those expectations.

I do believe in the World to Come, and I do believe that my living in faith in ways that are pleasing to God is expected in this world, as a part of reaching my place in the next. God wants His human partner, in earthly life, to work, to guard, to grow, to love God and others, and to make this world a better place while here. Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen taught beautifully and rather lyrically that when the soul of such a person, a person who has served God in life, escapes at death, its exit was as smooth and simple as removing a hair from milk, without impediment.

This is fundamentally close to classic Jewish belief, though there’s no clear, accepted doctrine today, however much teachers of doctrine in days past might have hoped there to be. 

D.  In All Phases of Life 

1.The mitzvoth are so broad and numerous they appear to cover much of life. This is purposeful, mainly in leading to think all the time that our lives should be in service to God. Maimonides: the mitzvoth are “devices given from afar by the Great Counselor in order to perfect perspectives and properly align all deeds.”

2. As we have studied before, they help us be truly free and avoid the urge to be dominated by animal passions, desire for wealth and excessive power, and longing for glory. 

E. Even When “Not Applicable” on the Surface Level 

1.      Technically, there are mitzvoth that do not apply to all, often because they directly apply only in the land of Israel or in the operation of the Temple, which obviously no longer is standing, or only to certain specific people. It is my view, which has support in the tradition, that one should study them all and fulfill them to the best extent one can. We may take some liberty here in that at the deepest level we’ll see ways of fulfilling mitzvoth that actually on the surface can only be studied and not be done, or truly are limited in their application.

2.      At least, this has been the hypothesis of our prior study. Now let’s see in this more concentrated study how it works out. 

F. Is It Really 613? Where Does This Come From?

1.      There are numerous works throughout time on the mitzvoth. And there are, as you might imagine, many differences on how to identify and count the mitzvoth in the Bible. This study of ours won’t go into all that. The most significant work on this over the centuries has been the Sefer HaMitzvot by the great medieval sage, Maimonides. We will use that book as the basis of our study, and I’ll bring in others’ thoughts on occasion to enrich our deliberations.  In particular, I will bring to bear the thoughts of this mysterious fellow Chinuch, perhaps a disciple in Spain of the great sage, Nahmanides, who endeavored to compile and comment on the views of major sages on the mitzvoth  in a book called The Book of the Mitzvoth.  His stated purpose was to provide a guide to the youth in how to live as God has taught us to live. This book is now being published serially over several years by the magnificent Jewish publisher, Artscroll, in a truly beautiful set, editions of which I will often have with me. 

2. We’ll rely on these sages over the centuries, but we’ll also draw heavily on our own knowledge, including especially our work last year in our study of Torah, the source generally of these mitzvoth, our wisdom, and experience.

Relationship with God - Part I   (Positive Misvoth)

First Lesson

Exodus 20:2       I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery;

1. What does it mean that God is our Redeemer?

A. 1. Why does Maimonides place this first? What does it mean? Is it indeed a mitzvah or just a statement?

(Maimonides says it means we are commanded to believe in God - a Supreme Cause who is the creator of everything, an all-transcendent Reality. Without this belief in God’s sovereignty, understanding Torah and being obedient to its direction would not be possible.

Another way of saying that is to understand this first statement of the Decalogue, “I am your God” as a statement of sovereignty, in which we are commanded to seek and serve God. It further invites us to want to know and seek to know more about God (though there are limits to our knowledge), to enhance our belief and our relationship. We learned a great deal in our Torah study as we followed Moses in his curiosity to glean greater understanding from “I am” or, put another way, “I will be what I will be.”)

2. Must it entail our faith that God controls all, is the cause of all, is all powerful, or is it being bound to this One God, our Creator, alone in service and duty, or both?

(Tradition says yes to both, unequivocally. Though the sages debate whether this first statement is actually a command or simply a statement of fact to be known as an introduction to the mitzvoth, they use certain words pretty universally - all powerful, all controlling, all ability, all greatness, all strength and splendor and glory and blessing and endurance, etc. Is this just a distinct and necessary way of separating from the ancient tug of polytheism, that we are to see no other force or being or object as controlling, powerful, or…god?

Is it possible to put it in different terms: whatever our views on all the alls,  can it be that we are to commit to this God as our God alone? Period. Or does our notion of God require having faith or belief in all of the alls, including all-powerful, all-controlling, all-creating?

For me, it doesn’t. For instance, God gives human beings the choice to choose life or death. In that sense, God is not all controlling. I’m not a Manichean; I simply don’t think this mitzvah requires all the alls. As with the young Jacob, I serve this transcendent God alone, with my best and growing knowledge of, and faith in, Divine greatness, as my sovereign, irrespective of the ultimate resolution of each and all of the alls.)

3. What is significant about God beyond being God in this mitzvah?

(God is the redeemer of the people and my redeemer! What does that mean?

I believe that it is intended to say that God saves me from servitude to any earthly or material form of life, that God gives me life and hope and direction, that I serve and am devoted to this God of revelation and redemption, Who has saved me for a purpose that I must fulfill in my life. This clause of the first commandment is what gives it its power and definition.

This redemption is not by chance; nor is it my doing; nor is it the doing of an earthly force; nor should I see any such redemption from any sort of Egypt as caused by anyone other than God.

Vitally, this redemption has the further purposes both of bringing us into service of God through the revelation and, crucially, as the redeemed stranger, to love the stranger on our own path and always seek his/her redemption.)

Deuteronomy 6:4-5    Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.

2. What does it mean to believe in God, and why is it important?

Why is this second, and what’s its significance? What does it mean that God is one, and why is this important?

(As suggested above and will be repeated often, we believe in the unity of God. God is God alone. By being yoked to the One, we, as Rambam says, take on the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not to created things, fragments such as the Greek gods, or modern forces such as fame or fortune to which we bow down and hold in reverence, devotion, and ultimately in indivisibility. It is God alone.

This unity further is the basis of our humanitarianism in that there being one God in heaven means all people are equally His children and they must respect each other as such. While there are many of us, there is a Single Source of universal truth, justice, and compassion. Comforted that there is Foundation for the good, we are mindful of the One God’s instruction and ready and obedient to do it.

We literally hear of the Oneness, and then are to understand it, submit to it, and regularly repeat it, reinforcing it in one’s heart (in the Shema). Accept, know, believe.)

Deuteronomy 6:4-5    Israel, listen! Our God is the Lord! Only the Lord!  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength.

2. What does it mean to believe in God, and why is it important?

 3. What does it mean that God is One, and why is that significant?

 4. What does love of God entail?

A. What is this love, how does it develop, and what are its effects?

(Sages teach it’s a spiritual delight that develops out of being aware of and appreciative of God’s benevolence and wisdom. It’s a bliss that results further from reflecting on the gift of the mitzvoth, God’s wonders, blessings, grace, and love for us. The more the focus on this, the more sublime, the greater the love. And it is the purpose of this mitzvah to drive us as close as possible to devoting “all” to the love. Beyond the mind and the knowledge, this love should come to dwell in one’s heart, involve one’s whole soul, and draw upon all one’s resources.

The net effect: we are to serve God out of love; we are to arouse others to love and serve God; we are to live in a manner that God will be loved by others through our lives. In other words, out of love (not just duty or fear), and this great-as-possible and growing abundance of love, we serve God best and most fully. As we will discern in later mitzvoth, this love then grows through that service, through our devotion, commitment, and faithfulness, in helping God re-create wholeness in the creation.)

B. What do we exactly mean by the love we see here?

(When we love another, we seek principally to be united with the finest features of our beloved, which we admire and may share. The best qualities of the soul of a lover, it is said, actually yearn for such qualities in the soul of the beloved. We are transformed by our union and are closely knitted in our hearts.

Our sages say that one who loves another will not rest unless he exerts himself in matters pertaining to his beloved and that the exertion is sweeter than the rest. Further, if one acts in a manner displeasing to his beloved, he will be confounded and ashamed unless and until they are reconciled.

In our case, we admire wisdom, justice, and mercy, and so we seek out and love the One in Whom such attributes are fundamentally rooted. Also, we yearn for God out of our human quest for the eternal which only God represents and can guarantee.)

C. Why is this love so very important?

(This great love puts us maximally into spiritual space, with God and God’s interests, thus weakening our attachment to worldly demands that don’t have divine purpose. The more we begin to love God, the more possessed we become by that love, and the more possessed by God we become. And the greater our love becomes, the closer we come to God.

So, this mitzvah is important, and one we confront early in the order, in that it pushes us continually to grow our love of God and cultivate it to be a sort of default state, one of preoccupation, one in which the rest of the mitzvoth find us in the most receptive state.)

Scripture taken from the Common English Bible®, CEB® Copyright © 2010, 2011 by Common English Bible.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. The "CEB" and "Common English Bible" trademarks are registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Common English Bible. Use of either trademark requires the permission of Common English Bible.

Divine Guidance Book Chapter 1

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