Monday, May 22, 2017

The Purpose of the Commandments

Rabbi Noson Sternhartz, Likutey Halakhos, Arev 3:8
Translated by Dovid Sears

The purpose of the soul’s descent to this world is to give birth to ratzon: the deepest will and desire of the soul for G-d. The beginning of Divine service and the end of Divine service is this. The main thing is ratzon.

Indeed, the very essence of the soul is desire, or ratzon. The three levels of nefesh (the vital soul), ruach (the seat of emotions), and neshamah (the seat of intellect) commonly are given the summary term ”nefesh.” The word nefesh literally means “desire,” or ratzon. For example, it is written, “If this is what you desire (nafshichem)…” (II Kings 9:15) [From this verse we see that the root of the verb “to desire” is nefesh.] This is because the soul has its source in the Supernal Desire—the desire, so to speak, of the Creator for creation. The ultimate goal and destiny of the soul is to return to the place from which she was hewn and to become incorporated into the “desire of desires.” This is the paradigm of the soul of Moses, the “universal soul” that includes all souls and constitutes their very essence. [That is, Moses attained this ultimate spiritual level. This empowers all other souls ultimately to do so, as well.]

However, the soul finds herself garbed in a physical body in this lowly World of Action, far from her true home, confused and beset by physical desires and fears. Faced with a host of moral and spiritual challenges, she is in grave danger. Due to her state of estrangement and the “fallen desires” concealed within worldly passions, she may lose touch with her inherent holy ratzon.

Therefore, G-d took pity on upon us and gave us His holy Torah and commandments, which the Zohar calls “613 pieces of advice” (Zohar II, 82b). By performing these commandments, we spiritually refine and sanctify our bodies, as well as this entire World of Action.

This is because each commandment proceeds from the Divine Will.

It is G-d’s will and desire that each commandment be performed in a certain manner, under a certain set of circumstances. For example, tzitzis (fringes) must be spun of wool or flax, and worn specifically on the corners of our four-cornered garments. This principle applies to all commandments.[1] By performing the commandments with our physical bodies and with the physical things of this world, we sanctify those parts of our bodies and those aspects of the physical world that are spiritually related to the commandments in question.[2] Thus, through the commandment, we remind ourselves, in this world and in this body, to yearn for G-d with intense ratzon. Then the World of Action becomes incorporated into the Divine Will, which is its supernal root and its ultimate destiny. This is alluded to by the Kabbalistic principle, “The last in deed is first in thought.”[3]

This is G-d’s greatest pleasure and delight (so to speak): when through our performance of the commandments we accomplish the unification of the most remote and estranged aspect of the World of Action with the highest level of ratzon. This is brought about by the performance of the holy commandments, which are discrete expressions of the Divine will, that we must fulfill specifically through physical actions involving the physical things of this world.

The perfection of ratzon takes place when desire is elevated from this material world, far from G-d; for the desire of the soul is strongest and shines most brightly when it must traverse the greatest distance.

[1] See Likutey Moharan I, 33, 34.
[2] For an in-depth exploration of this concept see, Rabbi Chaim Kramer’s Anatomy of the Soul (Breslov Research Institute 1998).
[3] Rabbi Shlomo Alkebetz, from the Sabbath prayer Lekha Dodi (“Come, My Beloved”), based on Sefer Yetzirah 1:1.

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