Habits are a powerful thing – habits are how we live and function because motivation is fleeting. But there is a dangerous possibility of habitual religious observance:

רְאֵה אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לִפְנֵיכֶם הַיּוֹם בְּרָכָה וּקְלָלָה – I am giving before you today a blessing and a curse. (11:26)

Moshe does not call on us to view life’s choices through a black and white dualism of mitzvah versus sin. Instead, he counsels us to make choices through the nuance of blessing and curse, because the blessing is what matters, not the mitzvah itself. A mitzvah is simply a vehicle for what God wishes for each of us – a life of blessing.

But who would ever choose the curse?

R’ Shlomo Farhi explains that by the curse finds us when we focus on the mitzvah instead of the blessing. It is all too easy to empty Judaism of its spirituality; meticulous observance can become mechanical rote – and without mindful intention and inspiration, it can look similar, but it’s not the same.

If we don’t consider an action before following through, we have not made a choice at all, and are simply following conditioning.

That’s where we need to discern the blessing from the curse. What can look like a mitzvah on the surface might not be serving God at all. It’s just robotic programming; it isn’t the path of blessing – it’s the other path. It’s not a path people choose; they find themselves there by not choosing at all!

In its ideal form, Jewish observance is conscious and mindful. We opt in because it matters to us and means something.

On the flip side of this, there is a problem with inspiration run wild.

In the laws that follow, Moshe warns the Jewish People not to co-opt the religious practices of the local Canaanites – because feeling inspired to serve God in ways we choose isn’t serving God at all.

When we blur the boundaries of inspired contribution and dutiful obligation, things can get dangerous.

The people had seen this tense dynamic play out with Nadav and Avihu, with a compelling point made about equality before the law: even the foremost spiritual elite are subject to the framework of the Torah. What had steered them wrong was misguided inspiration that was ultimately misguided folly.

So what are the guidelines of inspired observance that is welcomed with blessing?

R’ Shlomo Farhi teaches that we just need to apply our inspiration where it fits in. When we can and should follow our inspiration, and our actions have enhanced value.

But this can go too far. If someone decides that a white shirt is the most dignified way for them to dress, that is their prerogative. But if that thought process leads them to judge anyone else for not also opting to wear white shirts, that’s the path of mitzvah with no blessing. Our inspiration needs to fit.

Misplaced rigidity only alienates.

We can and should infuse our Jewish observance with mindful feeling. We must choose for it to matter. And we have to find the right place for it – choose the blessing, not the mitzvah. Because inspiration wrongly applied can backfire.

But if we are going through the motions without any inspiration at all, that might be worse.

Ahron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, were great men who might one day have led the Jewish people. But we find that they were consumed by their fervour for the Temple service:

וַיִּקְחוּ בְנֵי-אַהֲרֹן נָדָב וַאֲבִיהוּא אִישׁ מַחְתָּתוֹ, וַיִּתְּנוּ בָהֵן אֵשׁ, וַיָּשִׂימוּ עָלֶיהָ, קְטֹרֶת; וַיַּקְרִיבוּ לִפְנֵי ה, אֵשׁ זָרָה–אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה, אֹתָם. וַתֵּצֵא אֵשׁ מִלִּפְנֵי ה, וַתֹּאכַל אוֹתָם; וַיָּמֻתוּ, לִפְנֵי ה – Nadav and Avihu took pans of fire, in which they placed the spices, and presented it before God; this alien fire which they were not commanded. A great fire emerged, and consumed them. (10:1,2)

The stated reason for their death is that they were not commanded. What is so wrong with their voluntary service?

The introduction to the laws prohibiting certain sexual relationships, the arayos, is lengthy, but encoded in it is something very powerful:

וַיְדַבֵּר ה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם: אֲנִי, ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם-בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ; וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם, לֹא תֵלֵכוּ. אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ וְאֶת-חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם: אֲנִי, ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם: אֲנִי, ה – Hashem said to Moshe… Speak to the Jews and say that I am Hashem their God. Do not act like the Egyptians amongst whom you once lived; do not act like the Canaanites where you will one day live. Do not follow their customs; for it is My laws you should observe, My rules and justice which a man should do, and in so doing, he will live… (18:1-5)

Rashi notes that אֲנִי ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם echoes what was said at Sinai – אנכי ה אלוקיך. This statement appears throughout the Torah, and the construction is taken to mean that if Sinai was the acceptance of God as a king, then these are the laws of the kingdom. Sinai is woven into the fabric of the mitzvos, and the mitzvos into Sinai.

The Sfas Emes understands this seemingly ordinary introductory statement to be a prism through which to perceive and understand the nature of mitzvos.

Mitzvos can have a practical function. Mitzvos bein Adam l’chavero, the social, inter-personal mitzvos, by their nature build and develop a cohesive society whether intentionally performed as mitzvos or not. But entirely beyond from the practical function, there is a framework for doing mitzvos that brings God into our lives.

Volunteering in an unprescribed manner can work bein Adam l’chavero because the guidelines are straightforward – humans can learn and understand how best to relate to each other. Giving charity adds positivity, goodwill and brotherhood to the world, whether intended as the mitzva of tzedaka or not. But when it comes to the divine, volunteering can be very dangerous and destructive. An extreme example is the story of Lot and his daughters – the best intentions can twist and warp something beautiful into something gruesome.

A superficial analogy; imagine a newlywed man whose wife’s birthday approaches. He desires to give her an extravagant bouquet of flowers to show her a glimmer how special and important she is to him. Her favourite flowers are white tulips, which was why she had chosen them for their wedding. On her birthday, he surprises her with an ornate arrangement of red roses. How she responds is irrelevant, although parenthetically, one would hope she may appreciate them. The salient point is that although he certainly means well; and they may be beautiful; and they may express his feelings better; but a relationship is inherently mutual, and the type flower that she likes best is not a secret.

This may be the reason the lesson is taught by the laws of forbidden relationships – love and passion may seem so real, that they gloss over a fatal flaw. We cannot do what we feel like when we feel like – this is the ultimate form of narcissism and self-worship. Love is not a volunteer thing; it is a commitment. We are beseeched to not be like everyone else; we have very specific duties and instructions. An employee will work rain or shine; a volunteer can simply quit and it doesn’t matter!

The stated reason that Nadav and Avihu died takes on a very literal meaning in this context:

אֵשׁ זָרָה אֲשֶׁר לֹא צִוָּה אֹתָם – Alien fire they were not commanded…

The Torah allows people to volunteer sacrifices in the name of different things, but their type and class of offering was not one of them. This represents something foreign, sinister, and זָרָה – alien.

We cannot presume to know the workings of the metaphysical. Hashem is beyond our existence, and beyond our understanding; we cannot unilaterally reach out. But through the Torah, mitzvos and Halacha, we can earn the gift of a relationship with the Creator. All we know, and all we can know, about God, is what He tells us, because once, He reached in; so everything must fit into that framework. It is delusional to think that we can make God happy; we cannot change Him in any way. The small wisp of insight into how to relate to God is through Torah – literally, “The Instructions”.

The way to engage and develop the relationship for all it can be, is וָחַי בָּהֶם – to live a life committed to and imbued with Torah, being shining ambassadors and representatives of God in this world.

When people depart from interactions with you, is that what goes through their minds?

When God created the universe, the life it contained was not equally instructed. The amphibians and birds were told:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם אֱלֹהִים, לֵאמֹר: פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ, וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הַמַּיִם בַּיַּמִּים, וְהָעוֹף, יִרֶב בָּאָרֶץ – God blessed them saying, “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the waters of the seas, and multiply the land”. (1:22)

In contrast, mankind was told:

וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתָם, אֱלֹהִים, וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים פְּרוּ וּרְבוּ וּמִלְאוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, וְכִבְשֻׁהָ – God blessed them; and God said to them to be fruitful and multiply; fill the land and conquer it… (1:28)

The Netziv points out that while both are blessed to be populous, man had a personal instruction – וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם – it was said to them directly, and not just about them.

Rav Hirsch notes that nature serves God by its intrinsic existence. It cannot be otherwise because there is no deviation in how it relates to God. Mankind however, is spoken to, and must choose to listen. Free will is the צלם אלוקים that distinguishes humanity from other creatures. Allowing instinct and nature to run wild is to surrender to the animal within; the charge is to subjugate it and listen to God’s instruction.

The Netziv explains that the animal instinct within us must be channeled a particular way, as evidenced by the origin of humanity:

וַיִּיצֶר יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו, נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – God formed man from the dust of the earth, and breathed into him a living soul, and the man became alive (2:7)

Animals are simply called נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה – they are living things. But mankind is made of more – a balance of mundane matter, pumped with soul. It is with this equilibrium that man becomes truly alive. The word חַיָּה means alive, but it also means happy. The happiness is found in the balance. This is the choice on offer – וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם.

This is reflected in their respective developments too; a newborn calf can stand not long after birth, and while it will get bigger, it is born as it will always be; whereas humans are born helpless, defenceless, and pretty useless for a relatively large part of their lives. Clearly, mankind are intended for greater aspirations than cattle.

The Torah is intended as instructions on how to live. The Gemara teaches that וָחַי בָּהֶם – in most circumstances it is better to violate the Torah and live than die for its sake, with the exception of three cardinal sins: idolatry, murder, and consummating forbidden relationships. Bizarrely then, the location of the principle וָחַי בָּהֶם is exactly where it doesn’t apply, in the opening portion of forbidden relationships:

כְּמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-מִצְרַיִם אֲשֶׁר יְשַׁבְתֶּם-בָּהּ, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ; וּכְמַעֲשֵׂה אֶרֶץ-כְּנַעַן אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי מֵבִיא אֶתְכֶם שָׁמָּה, לֹא תַעֲשׂוּ, וּבְחֻקֹּתֵיהֶם, לֹא תֵלֵכוּ. אֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תַּעֲשׂוּ וְאֶת-חֻקֹּתַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, לָלֶכֶת בָּהֶם: אֲנִי, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם. וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי, אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם אֲנִי, יְהוָה – As Egypt did when you lived among them; do not do. And as Canaan do, when I bring you there, do not do; do not follow their ordinances. It is My law that you should do, and My ordinance that you should observe, and follow its ways; I am The Lord. Guard My law and ordinance, that you will do them, and live by them; I am The Lord. (18:3-5)

Literally anywhere else in the entire Torah would be appropriate to teach וָחַי בָּהֶם. Why does it appear here with respect to the section of forbidden relationships?

Arguably, it makes the most sense to include it by its exception – it serves to prove the rule itself. God grants life – but life isn’t everything. What matters is the way the life is lived. The three exceptions contradict the essence of life.

The section וָחַי בָּהֶם is said of is not entirely limited forbidden relationships. Apart from incest, the end of the laws address homosexuality, bestiality, and sacrificing children to Molech, a form of idol worship.

They are not an acceptable way of life. All are squandering and snuffing out potential life for transient and questionable gain. Perhaps it could be said that the man has embezzled a part of himself as well – that is not the person God intended to create. וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם – there was meant to be a balance of the mundane dust of physicality married to the spiritual soul, and that couldn’t be further from these. They are the ultimate obfuscations and literal perversions; funnelled into narcissism and self pleasure. What sort of human being puts a child, his own flesh and blood, into a fire, for some sort of spiritual elevation?

וָחַי בָּהֶם is placed on these to indicate the requirement of a direction in life. Life does not trump everything. Because there is another exception to וָחַי בָּהֶם too – during Shmad, a time of persecution and genocide. Rather than violate even the smallest and most insignificant law, a Jew should sacrifice their existence. Because life has to be worth something.

And if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

The pasuk says:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת־חֻקֹּתַי וְאֶת־מִשְׁפָּטַי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲשֶׂה אֹתָם הָאָדָם וָחַי בָּהֶם – You shall observe My statutes and My laws for when a man performs them, he will live by them. (18:5)

The Sfas Emes wonders what the prescribed manner to live by the mitzvos might be.

On the one hand, the Mishna in Avos (2:1) says הֶוֵי מְחַשֵׁב הֶפְסֵד מִצְוָה כְּנֶגֶד שְׂכָרָהּ – Consider the loss through a mitzvah against its reward; on the other hand, the Mishna earlier on (1:3) says אַל תִּהְיוּ כַּעֲבָדִים הַמְשַׁמְשִים אֶת הָרַב עַל מְנַת לְקַבֵּל פְּרָס – Do not be like servants who serve their master in order to receive reward.

This poses a dilemma – are we meant to value the reward, or not?

In order to reconcile these contradictory Mishnayos, we need to gain an understanding of what the ultimate reward for performing mitzvos. The Sfas Emes explains that the reward for a mitzva is not related in any way to anything we can experience. The next world is not physical. The next world is not even a place; it is a state. It is the state of our soul being close to God, something we cannot being to relate to, as everything we know is entirely physical.

In fact, the word for world – עוֹלָם – has the same root as the word for “concealed” – הָעֳלַם. The next world is concealed from us because it is beyond our life experience. In this world, the physical hides God from us. The truth is concealed by the illusion that there is no reality other than this physical world. This is why metaphors such as lies and darkness are applied to this world. In exactly the same way that God is hidden from us in this manner, so is the World to Come. It is the world of light, truth and reality – we have no grasp of understanding what is beyond the illusion.

The reward of a mitzva is being close to Hashem – we cannot relate to Hashem on this World, so intrinsically, the reward cannot be in this world. Performing mitzvos in order to come close to God is the reason we have the mitzvos, and the reason the world was created. It follows that the purpose of the mitzvos and their reward is one and the same. Accordingly, Chazal ask us to consider our loss from performing a mitzvah against the reward. The reward is closeness to God, which is the purpose of the mitzvah, and ultimately, life itself. We thus see that הֶוֵי מְחַשֵׁב הֶפְסֵד מִצְוָה כְּנֶגֶד שְׂכָרָהּ refers to the spiritual reward in the World to Come.

The other Mishna that warns us not to perform mitzvos in order to receive a reward does not mention שָׂכָר; it mentions פְּרָס. Here, Chazal are not referring to the ultimate reward and purpose of the Torah, mitzvos and life. Rather, they are referring to performance of mitzvos for personal gain.

The reason this is so is because the word word פְּרָס is related to פְּרוּסָה – a piece – which implies a separation. Personal benefit and gain are separations and distinctions between ourselves and others. Chazal thus warn us that it further separates a person from the source of life, from God. This is the opposite of וָחַי בָּהֶם – to live through them – as the point of life was to become close to God, but this causes a seperation.

The Sfas Emes has explained that the Mishnayos were not contradicting each other at all – the World to Come is where we become close to God, the point of existence. Everything we do should revolve around that end goal. If personal goals corrupt our actions, we become corrupt and this is what we are advised against.