Rabbeinu Bechaye shows us the blueprint for success in the parasha

Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340), in his commentary on the Torah, offers an explanation as to what is being referenced in the verse: “You shall follow the Lord, your God, fear Him, keep His commandments, heed His voice, worship Him, and cleave to Him.”

Rabbi Dr. Dvir Ginsberg, | updated: 15:15

Judaism Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg
Rabbi Dr. D. Ginzberg

There are times when studying the Torah that we are faced with a verse with seemingly obvious directives yet lacking any formal sense of how to apply them to our daily lives. In these instances, the commentaries serve a pivotal role in teasing out the ideas the Torah is presenting. One such example occurs in Parshas Re’eh, where the plan to the proper life is drawn up in a fascinating manner. 

Within the midst of the section regarding the false prophet, we come across an awkwardly written verse (Devarim 13:5):

“You shall follow the Lord, your God, fear Him, keep His commandments, heed His voice, worship Him, and cleave to Him.”

Taken literally, the verse does not seem to add anything whatsoever to our understanding of the obligations of the Jewish people. Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340), in his commentary on the Torah, offers an explanation as to what is being referenced. He begins with the instruction to “follow” God, an allusion to God’s middot, or traits. We find a similar concept noted later in the Torah with the directive of “vehalachta bedrachav”, meaning “you should follow in His ways”. However, in following these middot, we must act in a cautious manner. We should “fear Him”, meaning we should investigate not the essence of the middot, but the actions themselves. 

Rabbeinu Bachaye continues to the next directive, that of keeping His commandments and heeding His voice. Keeping His commandments refers to adhering to the written Torah given to Moshe at Sinai, containing the 613 commandments. What about heeding His voice? He explains that this alludes to both the prophets, as well as the Oral Law, the tradition emanating from the prophets. The very structure of the mesora, the passing down of the Torah and its ideas from generation to generation, is prefaced on the initial receiving of the complete Torah by Moshe at Sinai. Moshe passed it to Yehoshua, Yehoshua to the elders, the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Great Sages. Rabbeuni Bachaye pivots to the idea of worship from the verse, offering a one word clarification: tefila (prayer). This all culminates in the final command, that of cleaving to God.

Rabbein Bachaye offers three distinct explanations for cleaving. His first possibility is that even in a time of “reshut”, meaning a time where one is not engaged in a specific commandment, one’s thoughts should be attached to Him, and one should not separate oneself from this state of mind for even a singular moment. The second possibility is that one should not ever desire to leave the worship of God.

Normally, a servant naturally yearns to be free of his master. Even if his master is caring and benevolent, the notion of being subservient to someone else produces a strong urge to be free of the state of slavery. Thus, we are told we need to cleave to the serving of God, and to not desire to separate and be free, as serving God is the “true freedom”.

Finally, he offers one more explanation – God, in using the term cleaving, is referring to the promise of the reward of olam haba, the World to Come. If we follow all the above directives, we will merit the highest possible “cleaving”, found in olam haba.

We are faced with several questions regarding this elaborate explanation. For one, what ties together these different orders? How does tefilah fit alongside adherence to the Torah? What is Rabbeinu Bachaye referring to in the first and second directives, following God’s middot with limitations and caveats? Then there are the three different explanations offered for the concept of “cleaving”; what is each one teaching us?

The overall approach could be in understanding that the verse is alluding to the blueprint established by God for humanity’s perfection as a species.

The first part deals with the appropriate philosophical framework of the individual. One must be drawn to God, looking to emulate His ways. The middot of God, observed through Divine Providence, offer the gateway to understanding Him. One should recognize that these middot reflect the paradigm man should strive for in his thoughts and actions. However, in this very analysis lies the critical reality that we are qualitatively removed from God. We can never truly understand the essence of God and His relationship with man. Thus, we see the framework of how man should approach the study of God – drawn to study but understanding the intrinsic limitation.

In the second section, we see the importance of observing the commandments, along with recognizing the entire system, whether it be written or oral, is of Divine origin. Simply put, this is focusing on the practical requirement for the individual, that the Torah be followed.

Finally, there is tefilah. Tefilah is another paradigm, a paradigm of humanity ordering the psyche in the proper way. When a person engages in tefilah, one offers praise to God, understanding oneself as compared to the Creator. Requests are placed for needs, an acknowledgment of being a dependent existence. These experiences re-orient one’s normative psychological makeup, leading to the correct state of mind. 

To summarize, then, one can see from the above explanation that God is giving the Jewish people a formula to achieve the correct path of life: develop and advance the appropriate philosophical mindset, adhere to the commandments, and orient the psyche away from the ego and towards the true understanding of one’s self. Put together, the paradigm individual emerges. 

This overall approach is essential in understanding the next explanations concerning cleaving to God. Quite obviously, cleaving to God cannot have any interpretation rooted in the physical. Thus, Rabbeinu Bachaye sets out to offer three different possibilities. 

The first of these, as mentioned above, is that one should always be involved in thinking of God, even in times of “reshut”. In essence, what he is saying is that if a person correctly follows the blueprint laid out in the verse, an overall change emerges in one’s existence. One naturally desires to remain there, abandoning any pull towards that which is outside. The concept of cleaving in this instance refers to the person’s strong attachment to the ideal state of existence, that which follows the various directives of the verse. 

In the next explanation, Rabbeuni Bachaye writes that one should not desire to leave the state of servitude to God, as a slave normally would seek freedom. There is a certain intimidation that can overcome someone when beginning to contemplate what God has demanded of us. Every part of who must be dedicated to serving God.

This counters a normative viewpoint that people have of the idea of being free. Freedom quite often conjures up the notion of “doing whatever I want when I want”. To live an unrestricted life without boundaries is to many the highest expression of freedom. Yet such a person fails to see how often in fact he is not as free as he hopes to be. One is beholden to the physical needs of the body, forced to obtain nutrition. Often there is succumbing to emotional whims and fancies, unable to shake free of overwhelming desires. One can be constantly fooled by an outsized view of the self, the ego changing fantasy to fact.

The point here is that a person’s notion of freedom is in fact quite often an illusion. Judaism, according to Rabbeuni Bachaye, offers the true idea of freedom. It re-defines how freedom should be viewed, noted in his use of the term “true freedom”. When a person follows the formula for the ideal life, the objective of creation us reached. This is the “true” freedom. If someone understands and internalizes this idea, he will never perceive the worship of God as a servitude to escape. 

Finally, there is the explanation of olam haba as an expression of cleaving. When a person reaches the highest state of existence, knowing and serving God become the raison d'etre. Olam haba, as Rabbeinu Bachaye notes, is conceptually the same idea, albeit in a completely different situation. While the rationale for following God’s commands should not be to receive some type of reward, we still must have knowledge of olam haba and how it is our eventual fate. One hope to merit an eternal state of paradigmatic existence in the World to Come. 

Clearly, this a brilliant exposition of the above verse by Rabbeinu Bachaye. God presents to the Jewish people the blueprint for true success. No doubt, there is a certain elegant simplicity in all this, almost like a mathematical formula that leads to the ideal state. On the contrary, the path is a challenging one, where we face emotional hurdles and intellectual quandaries. Fear of traversing the path, though, is not an option, as long as we see the objective ahead.