The following dialogue is from the film Manhattan:
Yale: You are so self-righteous, you know. I mean we’re just people. We’re just human beings, you know? You think you’re God.
Isaac: I . . . I gotta model myself after someone.
Can one mode oneself after G-d? According to classical Jewish wisdom, the answer is yes; in fact, it is an obligation. This presents a theological question: how can a human, who is finite, emulate an all knowing and omnipotent Being? One of the sources of the answer is found in this week’s Torah reading.
G-d will establish you before Him as a sacred nation as He has promised you when you observe the commandments…and you go in His ways. (Deut. 28:9)
How do we go in G-d’s ways? What are the expectations established by this imperative and how can one evaluate if (s)he is being successful in achieving it? The Talmud (Sotah 14a) discusses some of the characteristics of G-d. He clothes the naked (Adam and Eve), visits the sick (Abraham), comforts the mourning (Abraham, after Sarah’s death), buries the dead (Moses) and so on. By doing these things, says the Talmud, we will be considered walking in the ways of G-d. The Talmud also states “one should be similar to G-d; just as He is compassionate and merciful so should you be. Just as He is kind, so too are we to be kind.
How are we meant to understand this mitzvah in light of the fact that the Torah has already given many commandments requiring us to treat others as we would want to be treated; giving charity, helping the downtrodden and so many other directives that require us to come out of our selfish selves. When doing these mitzvot, aren’t we emulating G-d? What is unique about this commandment?
The fact that there is a specific mitzvah requiring us to emulate the ways of the Almighty, is an obvious acknowledgement that the other commandments do not provide guidance in every conceivable situation that a person encounters. It’s not enough to just be kind or compassionate, there appears to be something more required of us. The Medieval commentator Ralbag (1288-1344) explains that even though we might be kind or compassionate in a given situation, sometimes a person might face a challenge in which (s)he is unsure how to proceed; there is no Torah precedent or specific mandate to follow. In such instances, we are to strive to emulate or imitate G-d. If we are unsure how to act, then we should be kind, slow to anger, etc.
Ralbag adds an additional point. The Torah is the Jew’s instruction book for good living. Whether it is birth, marriage, business, or even death, there is a mitzvah-i.e. directive-explaining to us what the Almighty wants from us. The mitzvot are about action, both positive and negative, (don’t murder, steal, commit adultery, worship idols; be kind, judge favorably, don’t be cruel to animals, et al.) and instruct us how to act and how not to act. However, the commandment to emulate G-d focuses not on our actions but rather on our character. It is not enough for us to merely act properly and to abstain from incorrect behavior, we must also refine our character. G-d is without flaw, something that can’t be said of any human being, and although we can’t ever reach that level, we can strive to develop our character in His image. In short, this mitzvah pushes us to demand of ourselves that we not only focus on what we do but also on who we are.
Two outcomes emanate from this approach. When there is no clear Torah mandate, we are to exercise our personal judgment. However, the absence of well-defined mandate in a particular situation does not mean that we are free to do as we please. We are required to act in a manner that emulates the ways of G-d. Secondly, we are required to integrate the virtues ascribed to G-d into our character and personality; a Jew’s life is not just about acting properly, we must direct our attention not only to act in a specific way but also to focus on who we are. The following story involves Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski (1863-1940), Rabbi of Vilna and the greatest authority on halacha (Jewish law) before WWII. People around the world corresponded with him regarding various matters in both individual and communal Jewish life.
One year during the Sukkot festival, a guest came to his home to eat in his Sukkah. R’ Chaim Ozer excused himself saying that due to his old age it was uncomfortable for him to sit in the Sukkah; he then excused himself from joining his guest. He mentioned the halachah (point of Jewish law) that “one who is uncomfortable due to the cold or heat in a Sukkah is exempt from being there,” and retired to the house. The young guest, however, who felt fine (i.e healthy) remained in the Sukkah. A short while later, R’ Chaim Ozer emerged from the house and returned to sit with his guest in the Sukkah. Realizing the guest was perplexed, R’ Chaim Ozer explained, that his feeling a bit cold might have exempted him from the mitzvah of Sukkah but not from being kind and performing the mitzvah of welcoming and hosting guests (hachnasat orchim). His being was one of kindness, and he allowed it to penetrate into his very essence. He didn’t have to sit in the Sukkah but he wanted to because of the person he had become. We are not in this world merely to act properly, we are here to focus on who we are so that we can become the exemplary people we want to be.
Next time someone is upset with you and accuses you of “thinking you are G-d,” is “I gotta model myself after someone” the right answer? In Jewish consciousness we would say, “I am obviously not G-d but I use His model of kindness, compassion, and patience as the paradigm to which I live my life.” It’s not pie in the sky fufu dust, it is one of the mitzvot of the Torah, which means it is within our reach. May all of us strive to lead our lives this way.
(Sources: Rambam,Sefer HaMitzvos, 8;Sotah 14a; Shabbos 133b; Ralbag, Devarim 28,toeles 4;Shulchan Aruch,Orach Chaim 640:4)