From Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt, Ohev Yisroel, Parshat Mishpatim.
וַעֲבַדְתֶּם אֵת יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם וּבֵרַךְ אֶת לַחְמְךָ וְאֶת מֵימֶיךָ וַהֲסִרֹתִי מַחֲלָה מִקִּרְבֶּךָ And you shall serve the LORD your God, and He will bless your bread and your water, and He will remove sickness from your midst… Exodus 23:25
This begins in the plural and ends in the singular [the command is in the plural and the reward is in the singular] (1).
Now it is known that God does not need our service and our righteous acts, for need applies only to flesh and blood — what can we offer for God’s benefit? Rather, God’s delight is in granting good to His creations and bestowing on them all their needs. And for this He created all the worlds and all the creatures, so that they would do His will and receive His wonderful bounty at every moment. For when a person walks in the ways of God and cleaves to Him, imitating God’s holy ways, he arouses from below the heavenly attributes above, and God pours out His loving-kindness on the world (2). Such a one was Abraham our father.
But when a person does not arouse the mercies above through good deeds, the Holy One of Blessing does not withhold from us His loving-kindness. He continues to pour out His bounty upon us, but this does not grant Him delight, for it is difficult for God to pour out His goodness and graces upon the world below by way of wonders and miracles without the arousal from below. So our sages say: “A person’s sustenance is as difficult as parting the Reed Sea” (3), for the parting of the sea was entirely a miracle. For the Assembly of Israel was naked and devoid of Torah and mitzvot, and so could not cause any arousal from below; therefore God’s mercy had to overwhelm His judgment so that he could bestow upon them such loving-kindness.
This is why the sages say it was at the sight of Joseph’s coffin (4) that the sea split. The sea wished to do the will of its Creator, assigned to it at creation, that is, to fill the space between its shores. But when it saw the coffin it understood that there is a quality to Israel that supersedes nature — just as the righteous one Joseph, the foundation of the world, overcame his natural urges and did not want to listen to his master’s wife, out of love for God (5) — and it grew afraid and fled. For the Holy One of Blessing guides Israel, granting them good and lifting them up above nature.
But in this case there was truly no arousal from below, so it was “difficult,” as it were, for God to bring them this good. It is the same with a person, as the sages say, “I defiled my deeds and forfeited my sustenance” (6). But when a person serves God then His bounty and goodness come upon him according to justice, and He does not need to give out of mercy, and this is truly a delight to God. Thus the saying of the sages, “The attribute of Loving-kindness said, ‘So long as Abraham was alive, I did not need to do my work, for he stood in my place” (7). That is, Abraham our father, through his good deeds, opened the gates of heavenly loving-kindness to fulfill the needs of all creatures, and so the attribute of Loving-kindness never had to reveal its function, because of this arousal from below.
Now every righteous person serves God according to his understanding and his conception of God, depending on how his heart burns within him. One righteous person might serve through his great cleaving to God in love, and so become a seat and a vehicle for divine loving-kindness, like Abraham. Another might serve through rigor and fear, like Isaac, or through truth, like Jacob; there are in fact many different ways of serving. They seem different from the point of view of the servants who are performing the arousal from below, but above, at their heavenly root, they are gathered and united, and all proceed to the same source. All of them are made into a crown for the head of the King of Glory, and they all have the same intent — to bring delight to the Creator with their good deeds and open the source of bounty, so that it pours down on all creatures of the world. Thus the source of the bounty is one single unity, though the arousal from below to above occurs in many different ways, each service according to the servant.
This is why “You shall serve” is in the plural, for the ways of service are many. Likewise, “your God” is in the plural, for each acts according to the godliness within him. But when it comes to the drawing out of heavenly bounty, it is all from one source, so “your bread and water will be blessed” is in the singular. Likewise, “I will remove the sickness from you” is in the singular. For there is an evil sickness, as King Solomon wrote in his book: “I have observed an evil sickness: riches hoarded by their owner to his misfortune, for they are lost through evil, and if he begets a son, he has nothing to offer,” and he is not even allowed to enjoy them himself (8). For this is the soul-sickness, that a person cannot even enjoy his own riches. But when his riches come to him through his deeds, as explained above, then all sickness will pass from the world, and he will no longer eat the bread of grief, but rather everyone will eat his bread and drink his water in joy and gladness of heart, according to God’s blessing (so may it be His will!).
1) You (pl.) shall serve the Lord your (pl.) God…your (sing.) bread…your (sing.) water…from your (sing.) midst. 2) This is a mystical motif that uses sexual imagery to describe the interplay between the upper and lower worlds. In the same way that the husband or the wife may initiate sex, both God and people may “make the first move” towards uniting the worlds and bringing heaven and earth together. 3) A literal translation of Yam Suf. It was probably not the Red Sea that the Jews crossed, despite our continued use of the phrase. 4) The Jews were carrying it back to the Land of Israel for burial. 5) 6) Kiddushin 82b 7) Midrash 8) Ecclesiastes 5:12-13
Ever since Jews have been serving God, we’ve been trying to figure out if it’s for us or for God. The Ohev Yisroel, in true Hasidic fashion, answers, “Yes!” To see the question as either-or would be to posit God and us as separate and mutually exclusive, but Hasidism, following the mystical understanding of God’s oneness that they inherited, says no such thing. Rather, all existence can be seen as one continuous spectrum. At one end is God (actually, God’s at the other end, too, and everywhere in between, but for the sake of simplicity let’s leave that out for now), an infinite white light containing all other colors within it. All those other colors, broken up across the spectrum, are the created worlds, both spiritual and physical. (We’re somewhere towards the far end.) All life, all existence, exist only because of the outpouring of light. Our job, and the point of all religious acts, according to this understanding, is to make sure that light continues to flow and even reach us at the end of the spectrum. We need it, and God “wants” it (inasmuch as God can want anything). God wants it so much that even if we lie down on the job, God finds a way, but it’s the nature of the arrangement that everyone’s happier when we earn it.
It might seem strange that the Ohev Yisroel, a man known for his loving-kindness, speaking as a leader of Hasidism, a movement known for dealing in the miraculous, should here claim that God takes special delight in the world running according to the attribute of Rigor, without recourse to miracles. But it’s actually right in line with Hasidism’s claim that miracles are often a sign of a lack of holiness, and that even God’s rigor is a form of mercy. I think of us parents supporting our children — obviously, we wouldn’t let them starve, but wouldn’t we rather see them earn their keep than sit on the couch all day? And wouldn’t we, God’s children, rather be partners with God, earning our keep, than sit around in this world all our lives eating out of God’s pantry and doing nothing in return? Or to continue the mystical metaphor of arousal: the Torah tells us God is our spouse, and that each spouse must fulfill the needs of the other. Do we really want to be cold fish in bed with our divine Lover? And isn’t that the greatest miracle, that God invites us to share the bed?