The Blueprint for Perfection

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

There are times when studying the Torah that we are faced with a verse with seemingly obvious directives, yet lacking any formal sense of how to apply them to our daily lives. In these instances, the commentaries serve a pivotal role in teasing out the ideas the Torah is presenting. One such example occurs in Parshas Re’eh, where the very blueprint to the proper life is laid out in a fascinating manner. 

Within the midst of the section regarding the false prophet, we come across a seemingly awkward verse (Devarim 13:5):

You shall follow the Lord, your God, fear Him, keep His commandments, heed His voice, worship Him, and cleave to Him.”

Taken literally, the verse does not seem to add anything whatsoever to our understanding of our inherent obligations as Bnai Yisrael. Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340), in his commentary on the Torah, offers an explanation as to what these different commands are referencing. He begins with the instruction to follow God, an allusion to God’s middos. We find such this similar concept noted later in the Torah with the phrase “vehalachta bedrachav”, meaning “you should follow in His ways”. However, in following these middos, we must act in a cautious manner. We should “fear Him”, meaning we should investigate not the essence of the middos, but the actions themselves. He then moves on to the next command, that of keeping His mitzvos and heeding His voice. Keeping his mitzvos refers to adhering to the written Torah given to Moshe at Sinai, containing the 613 commandments. What about heeding His voice? He explains that this alludes to both the prophets, as well as the Oral Law, the tradition coming from the prophets. The very structure of the mesora, the passing down of the Torah and its ideas from generation to generation, is prefaced on the initial receiving of the complete Torah by Moshe at Sinai. He then passed it to Yehoshua, Yehoshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the anshei kenses hegedola. Rabbeuni Bachaye now moves to the idea of worship, offering a one-word clarification: tefila, prayer. This all culminates in the final command, that of cleaving to God.

Rabbein Bachaye offers three distinct explanations for what cleaving is referring to. His first possibility is that even in a time of “reshus”, meaning a time where one is not engaged in a specific commandment, one’s thoughts should be attached to Him, and he should not separate himself from this state of mind for even one moment. The second possibility is that one should not ever desire to leave the worship of God. Normally, a servant naturally yearns to be free of his master. Even if his master is caring and benevolent, the notion of being subservient to someone else by definition produces a strong urge to be free of the state of slavery. Thus, we are told we need to cleave to the serving of God, and to not desire to separate and be free, as serving God is the “true freedom”. Finally, he offers one more explanation – God, in using the term cleaving, is referring to the promise of the reward of olam haba, the World to Come. If we follow all the above directives, we will merit the highest possible “cleaving”, found in olam haba.

We are faced with a number of questions regarding this elaborate explanation. For one, what ties together these different orders? How does tefilah fit alongside adherence to the Torah? What is he referring to in the first and second directives, following God’s middos (traits) with limitations? Then there are the three different explanations offered for the concept of “cleaving”; what is each one teaching us?

Looking at the various different commands, there does not seem to be a clear tie between them. It could be that the verse is alluding to the overall blueprint established by God for man’s perfection. The first part deals with the appropriate philosophical framework man must be in. He must be drawn to God, looking to emulate His ways. The middos of God, seen through hasgachas Hashem (God’s providence), offer the gateway to yediyas Hashem. One should recognize that these middos reflect the paradigm man should strive for in his thoughts and actions. However, in this very analysis lies the critical reality that we are qualitatively removed from God. We can never truly understand the essence of God and His relationship with man. Thus, we see the framework of how man should approach the study of God – drawn to study but understanding the intrinsic limitation. In the second section, we see the importance of observing the mitzvos, along with recognizing the entire system, whether it is written or oral, is of Divine origin. Simply put, this is focusing on the practical requirement for man, that he follow the entire Torah. Finally, there is tefilah. Tefilah is another paradigm, a paradigm of man ordering his psyche in the proper way. When a person engages in tefilah, he offers praise to God, understanding who he truly is as compared to the Adon Olam, Creator. He engages in requests for his needs, acknowledging that he is a dependent existence. These experiences re-orient man’s normative psychological makeup, and place him in the correct state of mind. To summarize, then, one can see from the above explanation that God is giving Bnai Yisrael a formula to achieve perfection: develop and advance the appropriate philosophical mindset, adhere to the system of mitzvos, and orient the psyche away from the ego and towards the true understanding of one’s self. Put together, ideal man emerges. 

This overall approach is essential in understanding the next explanations concerning cleaving to God. While it is obvious to state, nonetheless one must understand that cleaving to God cannot have any interpretation rooted in the physical. Thus, Rabbeinu Bachaye sets out to offer three different possibilities. The first of these, as mentioned above, is that one should always be involved in thinking of God, even in times of “reshus”, when no mitzvah imposes itself upon us. In essence, what he is saying is that if a person correctly follows the blueprint laid out in the verse, it produces an overall change in one’s existence. He naturally desires to remain in this state of existence, losing any pull towards that which is outside it. The concept of cleaving in this instance therefore refers to the person’s strong attachment to the state of existence he is in, the direct result of following the various directives of the verse. In the next explanation, Rabbeuni Bachaye writes that one should not desire to leave the state of servitude to God, as a slave normally would seek freedom. There is a certain intimidation that can overcome someone when beginning to contemplate what God has laid out for us. Every part of who we are is dedicated to avodas Hashem. This counters a normative viewpoint that people have of the idea of being free. Freedom quite often conjures up the notion of “doing whatever I want when I want”. To live an unrestricted life without boundaries is to many, the highest expression of freedom. Yet such a person fails to see how often in fact he is not as free as he hopes to be. He is enslaved to the physical needs of his body, forced to obtain nutrition. Many times he succumbs to emotional whims and fancies, unable to shake free of overwhelming desires. One can be enslaved to his outsized view of the self, his ego distorting facts around him. The point here is that a person’s notion of freedom is in fact quite often an illusion. Judaism, according to Rabbeuni Bachaye, offers the real idea of freedom. It re-defines how freedom should be defined, noted in his use of the term “true freedom”. When a person follows the formula for perfection, he lives in line with the objective of his creation. Such a life, where one is living in the world of reality, is what freedom means. If someone understands and internalizes this idea, he will never perceive the worship of God as a servitude from which to escape. Finally, there is the explanation of olam haba as an expression of cleaving. When a person reaches the highest state of existence, his entire being is one involved in yediyas Hashem. Olam haba, as Rabbeinu Bachaye notes, is conceptually the same idea, albeit in a completely different situation. While the rationale for following God’s commands should not be to receive some type of reward, we still must have knowledge of olam haba and how it is part of the fate of the tzelem Elokim, our soul. Our objective here is to immerse ourselves in yediyas Hashem, knowledge of God; we hope to merit an eternal state of yediyas Hashem in olam haba. 

Thus we see a brilliant exposition of this verse by Rabbeinu Bachaye. Hashem is laying out to us the road to perfection, one that elevates man to the highest possible levels. The results of following this path is man being able to live in line with his existence. No doubt, there is a certain elegant simplicity in all this, almost like a mathematical formula that leads to success. On the contrary, the path is a challenging one, where we face emotional hurdles and intellectual quandaries. Yet we must journey down this road, as it is the one that is the true derech Hachayim, the path of life.