And G‑d took the man, and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and to keep it.
“To work it”—these are the positive commandments; “and to keep it”—these are the prohibitions.
We live in a binary world: a world in which every object has a positive and a negative pole; a world in which every force has an active and a latent mode; a world whose defining logic is built on two fundamental possibilities—yes and no.
The mitzvos (Divine commandments) of the Torah are also cast in this dual mold. The mitzvos fall under two general categories: the positive commandments (mitzvos aseih), which spell out the activities (giving charity, putting on tefillin, etc.) that G‑d desires that we do; and the prohibitions (mitzvos lo sa’aseih), which spell out the activities (theft, mixing meat with milk) that G‑d desires that we not do.
The Torah is not merely conforming to the nature of the lives it instructs. Indeed, since Torah is G‑d’s blueprint for creation, the very opposite is true: because the Divine will includes both positive and negative elements, the universe that came into being to implement this will is also polarized by positivity and negativity, by activity and passivity.
G‑d’s purpose in creation, say our Sages, is that He desired to have a dwelling place in the lowly realms. We make the world a home for G‑d through our observance of the mitzvos. Whenever we enlist a physical resource or force to do a mitzvah (a piece of animal hide made into tefillin, flour and water baked as matzah for Passover, the human mind engaged in the study Torah) we divest it of its corporeality and spiritual opaqueness and transform it into an instrument of Divine will. Before the mitzvah, the physical object proclaimed, “I exist”; now it proclaims, “I exist to serve G‑d.” Before the mitzvah, the physical object manifested the lowliness of the material; now it houses the Divine, exhibiting a receptiveness and subservience to its Creator.
In the words of Zohar, the 248 positive commandments of the Torah are the organs of G‑d. In the human being, an organ is an instrument of the soul, a vehicle for the physical realization of its metaphysical properties. The soul possesses the potential for sight, but it can physically see only via the eye; it is the eye in which the soul’s faculty of sight resides and which facilitates its action upon physical objects. The same is true of the ear, mouth, brain, heart, etc.—each organ and limb of the human body manifests another faculty or expression of the human soul. Thus, the Zohar’s metaphoric description of the mitzvos as organs of G‑d: it is via the mitzvos that the various expressions of the Divine reality are manifested on physical earth.
Obviously, there is more to the soul than what is manifested by its various organs, singly or collectively. The miracle of life is that flesh can serve as a conduit of spirit; still, there is a limit to how much of the spiritual self flesh can actualize. Physical life expresses but an iceberg-tip of the depth and scope of the human soul. The same applies to the Divine prototype after which man is modeled: while G‑d decreed that something of His essence be present in every act of conformity with His will, there is more to the Divine reality than what is embodied by the physical objects and actions of the mitzvos.
This is why, in addition to granting us the positive commandments, G‑d also commanded us the prohibitions. Any human deed, no matter how noble or transcendent, is finite and equivocal; no act of man can capture the absoluteness, transcendence, and infinity that is the hallmark of the Divine. The prohibition, however, implements the Divine will not by doing, but by not doing, and as such, it is not compromised by the deficiencies of the mortal deed. A non-act is absolute and unequivocal—there is no limit to the extent to which a person has not done something. By decreeing that a host of non-actions should constitute the fulfillment of His will, G‑d has accorded us the ability to relate to His truth unencumbered by the limitations of human endeavor.
Why, then, one might ask, the need for the positive commandments? If the purest, most perfect fulfillment of the Divine will is the non-act of the mitzvos lo sa’aseh, why didn’t G‑d make life a wholly passive affair—an exercise in abstinence?
The answer is as obvious as the question. A life devoted to the passive fulfillment of the Divine will would be free of the shortcomings of human endeavor, but it would also be devoid of its creativity and passion. G‑d desired more than flawlessness from His creatures—indeed, the most flawless reality was the state of pristine nothingness that preceded creation! So it was not perfection that G‑d sought in creating a world, but the dynamic quest for perfection embarked on by an imperfect world. It was not a spiritual world that G‑d set out to create—no world could be more ethereal than the pre-creation nullity—but a corporeal, lowly realm that would re-create itself as a dwelling for Him.
At the same time, He wished to provide this world with the potential for unadulterated contact with Him—a link to His quintessential truth that transcends the limitations of mortal activity. So in addition to the imperative to do, develop, transform, and create, He also instructed us to desist, to abnegate desire and self in fulfillment of His will.
Hence, the mitzvos aseih and the mitzvos lo sa’aseih—a bi-columned Torah consisting of do’s and don’ts, a mandate for both active and passive relationship with G‑d. Hence a world bisected by affirmative and negative, being and naught, dynamism and placidity. v
Based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Chabad.org includes weekly parshah information for the entire family at www.chabad.org/Parshah. Reprinted with permission from Chabad.org.