5768 - #02


While the distinction between mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro – commands between the human being and his/her fellow -- and mitzvot bein adam l’Makom – commands between the human being and God – is the method by which most people categorize the mitzvot, it is often reported that the Vilna Gaon actually divided the mitzvot into 3 categories, adding the class of mitzvot bein adam l’atzmo – commands between the human being and him/herself.1 This designation would identify the mitzvot that are intended to simply improve us as human beings and as Jews. There are Divine directives intended to articulate, to develop and to implement the proper relationships between people. There are Divine directives intended to articulate, to develop and to implement the proper relationship between God and humanity, individually and communally. Then there are Divine directives intended to articulate, to develop and to implement, not a relationship but, the proper manifestation of the individual. The Gaon’s methodology would seem to better express this inherent reality of the nature of mitzvot. The question emerges, in applying the more classical methodology of only 2 categories of mitzvot, how would we categorize the mitzvot bein adam l’atzmo?

             Of course, the improvement of oneself would inherently have a positive effect on relationships so it could be that mitzvot defined, according to the Gaon’s methodology, in the third category could find a place in either of the more classical, first two categories. It would seem, though, that it is the original category of mitzvot bein adam l’Makom that finds itself split into two with the application of the Gaon’s methodology. This, actually, is most significant, for this connection of atzmo and Makom presents an interesting perspective on ourselves and on God.

             There is an interesting tautology that lies at the very essence of the Torah perception of reality. We believe in One God Who is Perfect. Included in this definition of perfection are the concepts that (a) God does not need anything from us and (b) that God’s Will, in relationship to humanity, is solely to bestow goodness upon humanity.2 From this latter perspective, the relationship between humanity and God would have to be defined as serving humanity. If God’s objective is simply to benefit us, obeying God’s Will effectively means doing things that serve us. There are many philosophical and theological challenges inherent within this realization yet one idea that also accompanies this recognition is that every mitzvah bein adam l’Makom, in a certain way, must also be seen as a mitzvah bein adam l’atzmo. As God needs nothing, any mitzvah, even if seemingly done for God, must really serve the human being. As such, many mitzvot that seem to focus on relating to God – such as karbanot, the sacrifices of the Temple – are often explained in terms of how they affect us, improve us. Relating to God, in that God does not really need and has the sole objective of benefiting humanity, results, in a certain way, in a focus back on ourselves.  

             Yet, a fundamental principle, if not the fundamental principle, of devotion within Torah, is that we act in order to meet God’s Will. Our focus is to be on the idea that we are serving God; acting in order to meet God’s Will, not our own. God’s Will, though, is solely to benefit us; He has no “personal” benefit to be derived from our service of Him. God’s sole interest, in connecting to us, is to benefit us. The result is that every mitzvah bein adam l’atzmo, in a certain way, must also be seen as a mitzvah bein adam l’Makom. In that we undertake certain actions because they reflect the Divine command, this is actually straightforward; any such action, even as it benefits ourselves, also connects to the Divine.3 More powerfully, though, in acting to benefit ourselves, we actually also give to God in that we meet God’s desire to benefit us. In serving atzmo, we serve the Divine in that it is God’s Will to benefit the human being. And in serving the Makom, we serve atzmo, for benefiting the human being is the Will of God. 

             The result of this analysis is the realization that these two principles must be recognized in every mitzvah bein adam l’Makom. The mitzvah is undertaken to forge a relationship with God. Relationships are built upon the recognition of the other and the consideration of the other, at times, over oneself.4 In this case, though, the consideration of the Other is to benefit the person wishing to consider the Other. The mitzvah thus must also serve to develop us. Both ideas must be recognized in every mitzvah of this nature. 

             The result is actually the true bond of love. When one is described as loving another, what is usually associated with this description is the desire to benefit the other, even to sacrifice for the other. Yet if the love is mutual – and true love is only mutual5 -- the desire of the other is also to benefit the one that he/she loves and, so, not to wish this sacrifice. Love motivates one to give even at personal expense yet the one loved, who also loves, does not wish to receive this benefit at this expense. In the description of the tragedy of Ten Martyrs in the Yom Kippur Musaf Repetition, this type of love is described in the desire of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel to face his death first so that he would not have to see the death of Rabbi Yishmael. We strive to love God and to, thus, act for Him. He, though, loves us, thus, acts for us. The result is that in acting for Him, we really act for ourselves but through a process not built on self-interest but rather love. 

             It is this realization that is the basis of the process of teshuva for these mitzvot. It also explains the joyous nature of this process that often fills the shul on the Yomim Noraim. It’s not about me or God. It’s about us which includes the two within us.

. .


Rabbi Benjamin Hecht e-mail


1 This division of mitzvot into 3 categories corresponds well with the presentation in the Avot, chapter 1 which offers ideas in groupings of 3. While I have not seen the words of the Gaon specifically applied to this work, his words are actually often quoted in regard to  Avot 1:1 and the three pillars upon which the world stands, connected to the three categories of mitzvot.

2 For an articulation of this concept, see, for example, Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzatto, Da’at Tevunot.

3 I remember once being at a shiur given by Rabbi Aharon Feldman who made the point that every mitzvah bein adam l’chaveiro must also be seen as a mitzvah bein adam l’Makom for in following this command one is still relating to the Divine Commander..

4 This is a general statement. Of course, in connection to God, His Will is always primary but part of this reason is that God’s Will is beneficial to humanity. A full treatment of this issue is, though, beyond the parameters of this Insight.

5 This idea is most significant in understanding the Torah approach to love as distinct from the perspective on love of other religions.

Nishma, 2007


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