by R. Gidon Rothstein
Teaser: I have more a personal stake in this mitzvah than most, for reasons I will share along the way. For now, let’s see how our usual teachers wrote about the obligation to emulate God’s Ways. For Rambam, Obligation Eight commands us le-hidamot bo yit’aleh, “to emulate Him,” more literally “to become like Him, the Exalted One.”
Rambam adds le-fi yecholteinu, according to our abilities, a phrase Prof. Twersky zt”l pointed out often, put in by Rambam wherever he articulated requirements some people have reduced capacity to fulfill. The qualifier is to make clear God never expects more of us than we are able.
The verse is Devarim 28;9, ve-halachta bi-drachav, you shall walk in His ways, a commandment Rambam points out we can also see in Devarim 10;11, la-lechet be-chol derachav, to walk in all His ways. He quotes Sifrei Ekev’s explanation, just like the Holy One is called rahum, we too must be rahum [I am purposely not translating rahum, because I do not believe it means merciful or compassionate, the way it is commonly translated; more to come], just as Hashem is called hanun, tzaddik, hasid, we must strive to be all those.
Devarim 13;5 repeats the idea, when it says to “go” after Hashem, to fear Him, observe all His mitzvot, hearken to His Voice, serve Him, and cleave to Him. I think Rambam didn’t see this verse as the source because it never defines how to “go after” Hashem.
Emulation Through Action
Sotah 14a shows one way, by a focus on actions, to act as God is described as acting (Rambam is careful to add these are only mashal, a metaphor, regarding God).
He changed his presentation in Mishneh Torah, significantly enough I will break my usual protocol and discuss it. First, I note Ramban’s glosses to Rambam’s first shoresh, principles of how to decide what is a Biblical commandment. Ramban pointed out Behag limited this mitzvah to acts of kindness, comforting the bereaved, visiting the ill, and the like, the ones Sotah specified.
Sticking with Rambam, to my understanding he means we are supposed to become a certain way, through the vehicle of the actions of kindness by which God is described. Ramban read Behag to see we only had to act a certain way.
Sefer Ha-Hinuch: Actions For Our Benefit
Sefer Ha-Hinuch 611 speaks about actions, too, defines the mitzvah as to do all we do in the best way, with all our strength, to always speak with others in a path of hessed and rahamim, because the Torah shows this is God’s Way, God’s desire from His creatures, so we/they merit God’s goodness.
Then he throws in character, in Rambam’s way, speaks of both actions and the honorable character traits by which God is described as conducting Himself with people. It is for this reason the prophets describe God as, for one of his examples, erech apayim, roughly, long to anger.
God forbid we imagine God has actual anger, because an all-powerful Being will never need to be angry [note how he assumes anger starts with a lack of power and, I assume, the frustration from that], and anger always shows imperfection [another assumption worth discussing at some point].
It’s all to guide us, he says, to learn how to be and act.
God’s Anger, For Sefer Ha-Hinuch
His general point aside, the question of God’s anger clearly exercised him, because he brings a possible counterargument. Tehillim 7;12 says God is zo’em every day, a verse Berachot 7a took apparently literally, said God has a moment of za’am every day.
Sefer Ha-Hinuch denies za’am is what we think it is [an especially important comment for this mitzvah, that words used to describe God do not always mean what we assume]. He holds za’am to be the proper reaction to a world where most people spend their time caring only about what they want, many worshipping the sun, moon, or other powers, corrupting the world, making it a place that, by pure justice, deserves annihilation every day.
[Our mitzvah aside, I offer this assumption of his for your consideration. Is he correct, that by right, the world daily deserves destruction, because humanity as a whole, perhaps even just the Jewish people, fail to fulfill the basic obligations of being human in God’s world? Does it make it worse if the vast majority of humanity and perhaps even just the Jewish people, are not even trying? If you disagree, what could people do that you would concede makes the world deserve destruction (by pure justice, regardless of whether God would ever take such a punitive path.]
The za’am expresses the theoretical propriety of destruction, daily overcome by God’s rahamim qualities. (Sefer Ha-Hinuch adjures his son to accept his idea “until you hear one better,” a hint he was not fully satisfied with this.)
The Missing Laws of the Mitzvah
This seems to me a very big mitzvah, asking us to shape our characters and actions to become more God-like, yet many of us—including Sefer Ha-Hinuch—treat it as if its definition is simple. He says its laws are few, a general guideline that we should always choose the good and middle path, never go to extremes (he is taking this from Rambam’s Hilchot De’ot, which I am holding for last because it is both masterful and challenging).
We are supposed to always measure our thoughts, traits, and actions, Sotah 5b tells us, and Rambam and Sefer Ha-Hinuch are sure we are to measure them to reach the middle road.
We neglect the obligation (fail to fulfill a mitzvat ‘aseh in the Torah) if we do not work to adjust our paths, actions, and character to reach the middle path, across the spectrum of who we are and what we do.
[Sadly, I do not believe the idea of striving for the middle, weighing what we do and the character traits we maintain according to that middle path, characterizes most of us, in our goals, let alone our reality. I know people who resent the model, object to the idea they should always be considering carefully how they shape their lives.]
Why This Gets Brushed Off as “Ethics”
Minhat Hinuch shows one reason this mitzvah receives shorter shrift than it should. He writes that the sifrei mussar, the works of Jewish ethics, have filled themselves with the ideas of this mitzvah, and this is not the place for him to write at length, we can just consult what they have to say.
To be fair to him, he often tells us he will not repeat what is clear in prior literature; yet in more technical mitzvot, he finds much to write. He, like many others before him, treats this mitzvah as inexact and intuitive. If we just know we are supposed to strive for the middle, we’re on our way.
I don’t think that’s true, and I believe I have Rambam on my side.
Aruch HaShulhan: You Can Do It, Scholars Can Guide You
Two more points before we go there. I found two places where Aruch HaShulhan brings up this mitzvah. In Orah Hayyim 1;9, he notes it and immediately brings up the obligation to attach ourselves to Torah scholars and their students, to learn from their actions, as the verse says u-vo tidbakun, you shall cleave to Him (the end of Devarim 13;5, one of the verses Rambam had said echoed our obligation of emulating God’s Ways).
Ketubot 111a had pointed out a paradox in the verse, how can we cleave to God, and said staying close to Torah scholars will do the trick. I point it out because he clearly does not think the definition of right and good comes intuitively. I think he wants us to know the way to find out how to follow God, cling to God, is most easily traveled by developing a relationship with those who work on it most.
In 156;5, he adds another essential point, not just for this mitzvah: what we are naturally is not the last word on who we are, should, or will be. It is a basic Jewish obligation, to overcome ourselves where needed. [I believe it is a point grossly underemphasized today: who we are by birth has good parts, to be cultivated, and lesser tendencies, to be overcome. Our mitzvah tells us to do this with our character in general, see where we are already in the right place and where we need to shape ourselves in a better direction.
Mishneh Torah’s Halichah Bi-Drachav
Which brings us to Hilchot De’ot, Rambam’s Laws of Character Traits, where he starts with the idea people are born with particular tendencies, some with a quicker temper, some slower, some with greater appetites, some with fewer, and so on with any character trait we might name.
For all of them, we should strive for the middle, he says in paragraph two (he will adjust that in a moment), the exact middle. If he means it as it sounds, it suggests there is one ideal character, and if we all successfully cultivated it, we would all be the exact same people. And, in all the traits he mentions, the middle he describes seems to have a range.
For example, he says to desire only the body’s needs, to seek money only to support oneself, both terms with much leeway. The exactness of his rhetoric falters on the much room his description leave for careful evaluation.
[Halachah 5 muddies the waters further when he says a hasid (a person seeking to do more than the minimum) tends towards one of the extremes, and is lifnim mi-shurat ha-din, beyond what is absolutely required of us. There are centuries of debate about his exact view, and I will not attempt to resolve them.]
All of this is the mitzvah of halichah bi-drachav, with the payoff: just like Hashem is called hanun and rahum, we have to be, and adds this is true of all the kinuyim, the Attributes the prophets (not just Moshe in the Torah) used in reference to God. He lists some, including erech apayim and rav hessed, from the well-known Attributes God taught Moshe on Sinai after the sin of the Golden Calf, then moves on to tzaddik, yashar, tamim, gibor, hazak, and the like, he says.
For Rambam, every single adjective of God in Tanach calls us to emulate it. Nevi’im, prophets, used these adjectives to teach us these are worthy paths to adopt, to become like God to the extent of our abilities.
Teaser Redemption Time
That’s where he ends it, to me much too soon. If we are supposed to be rahum like God is described in Tanach, and hanun and tzaddik and…, we need to know what those words mean when applied to God! Yet I have not found anyone who engaged this project (there are works, such as Tomer Devorah, that seek to lay out the obligation of halichah bi-drachav more fully, but they do not adopt the strategy I am arguing for here).
I did; I wrote a book (right now a file on my computer) where I took some of these adjectives and looked up where they were applied to God in Tanach, and then looked at how commentators on those verses understood them. I found more surprises than I expected, starting with the word rahum.
I tried to share my results, and ran into many brick walls. I taught it in person, and bored people. I repeatedly offered to put it in small pieces for online journals or websites, . I wrote an article just on rahum and hanun, and found my conclusions rejected because referees were sure the meaning they always assumed was the correct one.
I also had an interaction where someone told me the mitzvah doesn’t include all those character traits, because who says Rambam is right? Maharal, for example, is sure only rahum and hanun are obligatory, and some aharonim make it seem like the mitzvah includes only the Thirteen Attributes. Of course, Rambam is more halachically authoritative than all of them, and Ra’avad did not object to his presentation, often seen as evidence he agreed; nor did Ramban gloss the mitzvah. And so and so on.
In a recent conversation, a teacher made what I think is likely the most salient point: even if I proved my view, people wouldn’t care, because they are already certain they know what this mitzvah involves.
I leave the conversation here, for your consideration: the Torah has a mitzvah- a mitzvah, like wearing tefillin, or making kiddush on Shabbat, eating matzah on Pesah– to shape ourselves to be more like God. As a mitzvah, it should theoretically have halachot, definitions and parameters. Instead, we trust ourselves to just know what we are supposed to do to fulfill it, as if we do not need schooling or a framework for how we are going to fulfill it. That’s the mitzvah of halichah bi-drachav, today.