The usual translation for the word mitzvah is commandment. While this is certainly correct, it is explained in the Talmud that the root of the word mitzvah means “connection.” A mitzvah, like the ladder in Jacob’s dream, has the power to connect earth to heaven. A mitzvah is a conduit connecting God and man, and this awareness enriches immeasurably the performance of mitzvot.
This definition is especially important for those who are raised in a more secular atmosphere, where the mere concept of being told what to do runs against a superficial concept of freedom. Being free to most people in a modern context means to be free to call the shots, to do whatever one wants. Therefore the mere mention of “commandment” seems very “politically incorrect.” Understanding a mitzvah as an opportunity to connect to God may strike a more receptive chord for those not raised in an atmosphere where mitzvot are observed or encouraged.
Actually performing a mitzvah has a connective power on a number of different levels. In this chapter we will construct a ladder with five rungs, explaining the intrinsic connecting power of a mitzvah. This ladder, similar to the ladder of dreams, is structured according to the five levels of soul. According to the concept of inter-inclusion, mitzvot are not one dimensional, rather their connecting force works simultaneously on multiple levels.
The lowest rung relates to how mitzvot connect us with our bodies and the lowest level of soul, the nefesh. The animal soul is essentially bound up with the body. When it is directed towards higher pursuits its raw energy has great spiritual potential. Performing mitzvot connects the body and nefesh to higher levels of soul and God, and entails ongoing discipline and training. Over time the body and nefesh are refined and directed, resulting in a cooperative effort with the soul. Performing mitzvot, demand not just a body/soul cooperation, but subservience of the basic desires and urges of the body. Yet these same desires are not extinguished, rather they find full release and expression through mitzvot designed for that very purpose.
Virtually all mitzvot include an action, use of a physical object or speech. In this sense, mitzvot connect our souls, not just to our bodies, but to the physical world we live in. The constant interaction with the world through performing mitzvot reinforces the cardinal imperative of Judaism – to rectify, uplift heal and transform the world around us.
The next level of soul, the ruach, relates to the emotional aspects of the human personality. Mitzvot are not meant to be cold and calculated actions divorced from the feelings and sensitivities of man. On the contrary, mitzvot bring us into contact with our deeper emotions. We are meant to feel deeply about the mitzvot we do and they are designed to awaken the full gamut of emotions including devotion, love, compassion, awe and gratefulness. Similar to the nefesh which needs constant refining, human emotions are in need of continual tempering and improvement.
The neshama is considered the seat of the intellect. The Written Torah provides few explanations as to the exact meanings and reasons for specific mitzvot. It was left to man to study, meditate, discuss and delve into the Torah in order to extract the nearly infinite depths of meaning contained in each mitzvah. Although we ultimately do mitzvot because we are commanded to, and despite the fact that only God ultimately knows the reasons for the mitzvot, still we use all our intellectual powers to unlock the abstract and concrete reasons and effects as best possible. Learning Torah itself is a mitzvah, one that is compared to all the others combined. Nothing sharpens, elevates and clarifies intellect as the study of Torah, and then applying that knowledge in the actual performance of mitzvot.
The level of soul termed chaya, the living one, represents the connecting force between the superconscious source of the soul and the beginning of intellectual consciousness. The chaya connects the lower levels of soul to their higher Divine origins. At this level, the performance of mitzvoth activate and connect the soul to its deepest roots, awakening hidden recesses of spiritual delight and awareness.
The yechida, the highest level of soul connects us directly to God. It is at this level where we experience a mitzvah as a reflection of God’s will and goodness, for all the mitzvot were given with man’s good in mind. The last two letters of the word mitzvah, are identical to the last two letters of God’s essential four letter name of God. In one of the Kabbalistic alphabets where letters are exchanged for each other according to a certain logical structure, the first two letters of God’s name, are exchanged for the first two letters of the word mitzvah. This shows that a mitzvah is ultimately a vessel for God’s will and bounty in this finite world. Every mitzvah is ultimately an opportunity to connect and unite with God.
|Level of Soul||Description of Experience||Connecting Force of Mitzvot|
|Yechida||Unity With God||Connecting to God|
|Chaya||Awareness of God||Connecting to the source of the soul|
|Neshama||Intellectual||Connecting to the intellect|
|Ruach||Emotional||Connecting to the emotions|
|Nefesh||Physical Vitality||Connecting to body and the physical world|
The angels ascending and descending on the ladder alludes to the connective power of mitzvot at all the above levels in the secret of inter-inclusion. God’s will expressed through a mitzvah affects and activates all levels of soul and body within the context of the physical world. In this sense, mitzvot are the quintessential ladder, connecting man and God, physical and spiritual, heart and mind, body and soul, masculine and feminine.