In this week’s Torah reading we have an interesting mitzvah (commandment). The Torah instructs us (30:19) to choose life. What does it mean to choose life? By nature, every human being wants life. What is this extra commandment about? Rabbeinu Yonah (Sha’arei Ha’avodah, chapter 49) interprets this mitzvah to refer to our eternal life, as follows: A person must constantly aspire to become greater in his service of God. A person should live his life constantly aspiring to improve himself and reach higher levels of spirituality. A person should even long for levels of service of God which he knows he cannot attain. This is the mitzvah of choosing life. The mitzvah is to make our desires, aspirations and goals focused on pursuing spiritual life. We should always be focused on desiring higher levels of service of God, regardless of whether they are attainable or not. Rabbeinu Yonah adds a remarkable point and says that for the desire itself, a person will be rewarded as if he attained it! The Talmud tells us that when one wishes to do a mitzvah but cannot accomplish it for reasons out of his control, it is considered as if he did it. So too, says Rabbeinu Yonah, if someone works on himself to be the best he can be, and wishes he could be even more righteous, but he is simply lacking the tools, nature or background to be able to attain the high levels he wishes to, he will be rewarded as if he became that which he wishes he could be.

This is not just about reward, but an actual commandment God has commanded us to do. We have a mitzvah to long for higher levels in Torah, mitzvot and good middot (character traits), even those that are certainly beyond our reach. Similarly, we find that our Sages tell us (Tanna Dvei Eliyahu Rabbah, 23) that one is obligated to say to himself, “When will my deeds reach the level of those of my forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob?” despite the fact that their level is well beyond our grasp. A Jew is expected to always aspire to the highest levels of service of God. In fact, Rabbeinu Yonah (3:17) lists this mitzvah as one of the highest attributes one can attain.

The Ba’al Hatanya lived near the local school in his town. In the school yard stood a tall pole, and the boys competed with each other to see who would manage to climb up to the top. As the children climbed up the pole one by one, each one would reach about the halfway mark, but then get scared to continue. But there was one boy who climbed all the way to the top, and everyone starting cheering for him. That boy was the grandson of the Ba’al Hatanya. When the Ba’al Hatanya heard the commotion that was going on outside, he looked out the window to see what the excitement was about. When he realized that the boys were cheering for his grandson, he motioned to him to come over. The boy entered the house and his grandfather asked him what all the excitement was about. He then told his grandfather about the competition, and how he succeeded in climbing to the top. “So why were you able to do it while no one else could?” asked his grandfather. The boy cleverly answered, “Everyone else would look down as they climbed up, and at a certain point they got dizzy and frightened by the height. I, on the other hand, made sure only to look up, not down.” The Ba’al Hatanya was satisfied with his grandson’s reply and told him, that so too, should be his outlook in life. Instead of looking at people that are not as great as you, you should always be looking up; always be looking at people that are even greater than you. Because if you focus on people that are on a lower level than you, you will compare yourself to them and you will likely be satisfied with where you stand and not be motivated to strive higher. Instead, focus on those who are greater than you, and always aspire to emulate those that are on a higher level than you.

This attitude is not just a matter of motivation, but a different way of life. A person who lives with a focus on always aspiring to higher levels, lives a life of constantly ascending higher. Even when we aspire for levels that are beyond our reach, the aspirations themselves transform us to higher levels. Not only is this an important mitzvah in its own right, but if our aspirations are sincere, we can merit reward for levels we never actually reached! How can we pass up such a mitzvah?

By Rabbi Yitzchok Aryeh Strimber

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