Being Like Hashem

Hashem will establish you before Him as a sacred nation as He has promised you when you observe the commandments of Hashem your G-d and you go in His ways. (Sefer Devarim 28:9)

  1. How do we travel in Hashem’s way?

In the passage above Hashem describes the conditions that the nation must meet in order to enjoy the blessings outlined in the parasha. The people must observe the commandments and they must travel in the ways of Hashem. We are commanded to observe all of Hashem's commandments and to also go in His ways.  How does one go on the ways of Hashem?  What is the expectation established by this imperative?

Despite the vagueness of this directive, Maimonides includes it in his enumeration of the Torah's commandments. He defines this mitzvah in his Sefer HaMitzvot – Book of the Commandments. He explains that we are commanded to imitate Hashem to the extent of our capacity.  We are to strive to adopt all of the characteristics and virtuous actions that are attributed to Hashem.[1]

This is an odd commandment. What specific requirement does it engender? The Torah includes six hundred and thirteen commandments.  These commandments describe a life of virtue.  Certainly, the virtues that are reflected in the Torah's commandments are the same virtues that are ascribed to Hashem.  By observing the Torah's commandants, is one not imitating Hashem and adopting His virtues?  What additional expectation is communicated in the imperative to travel in the ways of Hashem? What obligation does this commandment place upon us beyond the observance of the Torah's commandments?

2.         Guidance in situations not addressed by halachah

It seems that this commandment acknowledges that the other commandments do not provide guidance in every conceivable situation that a person encounters.  In some instances a person faces a challenge in which he must make a decision without recourse to a specific halachic ruling.  In such instances we are to strive to emulate or imitate Hashem.  When halachah cannot provide specific guidance, then we fall back upon this mitzvah – we seek to act in a manner that imitates Hashem.

Gershonides adopts this approach to understanding the mitzvah.  However, he adds an important element.  He explains that the Torah's commandments direct us in our actions.  It commands us how to act and how not to act.  This commandment's focus is not our actions.  It addresses our character.  In other words, with this commandment, the Torah communicates to us that it is not adequate for us to act properly and to abstain from incorrect behaviors.  Our fundamental character is the subject of this commandment.  We are to strive to develop our character in the image of Hashem.[2]

  1. Molding one’s character in the image of Hashem

In other words, this commandment does provide us with guidance when we are confronted by challenges that are not addressed by a specific halachic ruling. However, the commandment has another aspect. It requires that we not only act properly but that we also mold our character to reflect the virtues of Hashem.  We must not only focus on what we do but also on who we are.

  1. We imitate Hashem by acting with moderation

Maimonides seems to provide an alternative explanation of this commandment.  According to Maimonides, this commandment requires that we conduct ourselves in all areas with moderation.  Maimonides provides various examples. We should not be glutinous, but neither should we be overly restrictive in our diet.  We should not be greedy, but neither should we be spendthrifts. We should not be overly sensitive to the pain of others, but neither should we be bereft of empathy. In these instances, and in all areas, we should strive to seek moderation. [3]

Although it is understandable that Maimonides praises a life of moderation, it is not clear how this idea is communicated by the commandment to travel in the ways of Hashem.   Furthermore, Maimonides agrees that the commandment to travel in the ways of Hashem directs us to imitate Him. He maintains that the commandment requires that we imitate Hashem and also that we act with moderation. This means that according to Maimonides, these two obligations which are subsumed within a single commandment are closely related. How are imitating Hashem and acting with moderation related to one another? In order to answer this question, further study of Maimonides’ position is required.

5.         Character illnesses and the healthy character

Maimonides introduces his discussion of moderation by commenting that behaviors at the extremes reflect character illnesses.  In other words, gluttony, extreme parsimony, extreme frivolity, and lack of empathy are character disorders.  He suggests that moderation should be regarded as not only a virtue but as the state of a healthy character.[4]

Maimonides' use of this paradigm provides some insight into his association of moderation with imitation of Hashem.  Maimonides is suggesting that kindness to others can derive from thoughtful consideration of the other’s needs or from a compulsive internal need.  Similarly, generosity can reflect a thoughtful use of one's resources or it can reflect a careless or carefree attitude toward one’s resources.  When one practices moderation, acts of kindness and charity are the product of thoughtful action.  When one is fixated at an extreme, the same action is the product of a personality disorder.

6.         Thoughtful action imitates Hashem

Now the question on Maimonides can be addressed. What is the relationship between imitating Hashem and acting with moderation? According to Maimonides, to imitate Hashem does not mean to simply perform an act that conforms to a virtue ascribed to Hashem. If one performs charity as a consequence of a compulsion stemming from a personality disorder, one is not imitating Hashem.  Our virtuous actions only rise to the level of imitation of Hashem when they are thoughtful and performed with consideration.  This requisite thoughtful behavior is the product of a moderate character.

  1. Lessons for life There are three outcomes of this discussion. First, as Gershonides explained we cannot expect halachah to provide absolute guidance in every situation. At times we are required to exercise our own judgment. In such instances, the absence of clear halachic guidance does not mean that we are free to do as we please. We must act in a manner that emulates Hashem.

Second, Gershonides explains that we are not required by the Torah to only act properly; we are also required to integrate the virtues ascribed to Hashem into our character and personality. We must direct our attention to not only how we act, but we must also focus our attention upon who we are.

Finally, Maimonides teaches us that we must strive to not only do the right thing but to also consider our motivations.  Proper actions can reflect a virtuous character.  However, the same behavior can be the product of a flawed and damaged personality.  We are expected to strive to imitate Hashem.  This means we must seek to do the right thing for the right reason.

[1] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Sefer HaMitzvot, Mitzvat Aseh 8.

[2] Rabbaynu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gershonides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim, chapter 28, toelet 4.

[3] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deyot 1:6-7.

[4] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Deyot 1:1-4.