A Single Mitsvah by Rabbi Yehudah Ashlag (Ba’al ha-Sullam)
“If he performs one mitsvah, happy is he for turning the scale both of himself and of the whole world on the side of merit” (BT Qiddushin 40b).
There is no serving the blessed Holy One and keeping the mitsvot except in “לִישְׁמָהּ (Lishmah), for its own sake” (BT Pesaḥim 50b)—to please his Maker. Yet, our Sages have already introduced the practice of engaging in Torah and mitsvot even in “לֹא לִישְׁמָהּ (Lo lishmah), not for its own sake,” because “From not for its own sake, he comes to for its own sake” (ibid.).
Since the outbreak of the war people’s patience has worn thin and everyone, especially the young, have lost the power to control themselves and for that have become totally rebellious. It has become impossible to instill in them the habits of Torah study and keeping mitsvot. Moreover, the matter of [Torah] “not for its own sake,” which the masses base their practice on, is not the custom at all these days because respect for Torah has completely fallen. Therefore I have come out with this call to young Jews to return to the service of the blessed Holy One and to be faithful to Him even in a minimal fashion. We do not require of them immediate and total acceptance of Torah and mitsvot in their entirety but simply that each and everyone would at any rate accept a single mitsvah. As the Sages said, “Habakkuk came and based all [mitsvot] on one, as is said, And the righteous shall live by his faithfulness (Habakkuk 2:4)” (BT Makkot 24b) [cf. Maimonides on M Makkot 3:16]. Even if a person says he will fulfill all the mitsvot of Torah except for one [he is like a servant who rebels against his master (Rabbenu Yonah, Sha’arei Teshuvah, 6)], this refers to individuals who have become perfected and are now performing the mitsvot “for its own sake.” But before reaching that perfection when the whole point of the service is nothing but an exercise and training so that it will bring the individual to do so “for its own sake” the loss is not so great between him who fulfills in whole or in part.
I say that the first, and only mitsvah which guarantees attainment of the hope of “for its own sake,” is to resolve not to serve himself, except for what is absolutely necessary—merely providing for his sustenance. The rest of the time, he will work for the public: saving the oppressed, and every creature in the world that is in need of rescue and aid [cf. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program: “Everyone according to his abilities, each according to his needs”].
Serving others with the blessed Holy One’s mitsvot
1) There are two advantages to this mitsvah: Everyone will understand that they are laboring because this work is approved and agreeable to all the people in the world.
2) This mitsvah may better qualify one to keep Torah and mitsvot “for its own sake,” since the preparation is part of the objective. This is so because by accustoming himself to serving others, he benefits others and not himself. Thus, he gradually becomes fit to keep the mitsvot of the blessed Holy One with the required condition—benefiting the Creator and not himself. Naturally, the intention should be to keep the mitsvot of the blessed Holy One.
The part of Torah concerning relations between man and man
There are two parts in Torah: one concerns man and the Omnipresent; the other concerns man and man. And I call upon you to, at any rate, engage and assume that which concerns man and man, since thus you will also learn the part that concerns man and the Omnipresent.
Speech, thought, and action
Service of any kind, should include thought, speech, and action. We have already explained the “practical” part of the single mitsvah: he should agree to dedicate all of his free time to benefit people of the world. The aspect of “thought” is more essential in this mitsvah than in mitsvot relating to man and the Omnipresent. This is because in mitsvot between man and the Omnipresent, the “act” in itself testifies that the intention is to please his Maker, as there is no other room for such an action but Him.
Yet, with what concerns man and man, they are justified in and of themselves, since human conscience necessitates them. However, if he performs them from this perspective, he certainly has not done a thing. In others words, these actions will not bring him closer to his Maker and to actual service “for its own sake.”
Thus, each person should think that he is doing all that only to please his Maker, and to resemble His ways: as He is merciful, I am merciful, and as He always imparts good, so do I. This image, coupled with good deeds, will bring him closer to the blessed Holy One in a way that will equalize his form to spirituality and to holiness. In this manner, he becomes like a seal, fit to receive true supernal abundance.
And the matter of “speech” refers to prayer with the mouth—during the service and according to fixed times—for the blessed Holy One to turn his heart from “receiving to giving.” So, to murmur in Torah and in matters which promote achieving this [cf. Psalms 1:2: But YHWH’s Torah is his desire, and His Torah he murmurs day and night].
Pleasing his Maker unintentionally
It is hopeless to wait for a time when a solution is found for allowing him to begin the service of the blessed Holy One, “for its own sake.” As in the past, so in the future—every servant of the blessed Holy One must begin the service in “not for its own sake,” and from there attain “for its own sake.”
And the way to reach this rung is not limited in time, but by mechanisms and by the measure of his mastery over his heart. Hence, many have fallen, and will fall, in the matter of serving “not for its own sake,” and die without wisdom. Yet, their reward is nevertheless great, since his mind cannot appreciate the true merit and value of pleasing his Maker. Even if he works not under this condition, since he is not worthy of another way, he still brings contentment to his Maker. And this is called “unintentionally.”
Prophetic truth in material measurement
Since it is an absolute certainty the prophetic abundance must be received with language [lit., צֵירוּפִי אוֹתִיוֹת (tserufi otiot), letter-combinations] suitable for the spirit of beginners, that is, to benefit them and to be open to the self-interest of the generation. This is so because only then is it assured that the blessed Holy One’s word is accepted by the generation by way of “not for its own sake,” since the Creator did not prepare them in any other way, as mentioned above.
Hence, this is the sign of a true prophet: his prophecy is best suited for the material success of his contemporaries, as is written, And what great nation is there that has just statutes and laws like all this teaching that I am about to set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:8). Since the material success at hand confirms their truthfulness, that, at last, it is indeed a widening of the gateway, as mentioned above.
The obligation to keep the 613 mitsvot
The 613 mitsvot, considered holy names, concern the matter of הַשׁגָחָה פְּרָטִית (hashgaḥah pratit), individual providence, for all who approach to receive divine abundance. Man is obligated to experience all of these orders, excepting none. Hence, the perfected ones follow them with their very being, in order to preserve them, down to their material branches, in the mystery of, In every place that I make My name invoked, I shall come to you and bless you (Exodus 20:24).
The Wisdom of Truth
The ancients chose a particular path for themselves, and I chose a general way, since to my mind it better suits the Divine, to ensconce Him in unchanging and eternal language. I mean to say that [even] with material success, they will not change in any place, nor in any time. Thus, my words are definitive.
For this reason I am forced to express רוּחָנִיוּת (ruḥaniut), spirituality, in a general way. However, I instead choose to explain all the particulars and immaterial language, to the most minute detail, which has no source other than this anthology, without the garment of material language—the pure Kabbalah. And by elucidating the spiritual particulars without the garment of material expressions, it will do much for the development of attainment. And this wisdom is called the Wisdom of Truth.
In prophecy no error or falsehood can occur, since in light of the truth which derives from the blessed Holy One how can there be error? Rather, it is as certain as rain and snow falling from the sky onto the soil, not ceasing until successful in their mission. Yet, soil that has been prepared by stone-removal and by plowing is better fit to receive than unprepared soil—everything depends on the preparation.
There is certainly a distinction among prophets, the kabbalists, since he is not actually in the [same] degree as his companion. Greatness or smallness is gauged according to the preparation of that prophet: one in a lower degree, due to a lack of tremendous preparation, is deficient in the light poured upon him, yet, the light of prophecy does not suffer any errors [itself]. However, his smallness causes him to use profuse language [lit., צֵירוּפִי אוֹתִיוֹת (tserufi otiot), letter-combinations], which is the multiplication of צִנוֹרוֹת וְכְּלִים (tsinorot ve-kelim), channels and vessels, until he attains prophecy.
Brevity is prophetic success
A prophet of a smaller degree imposes a more arduous way upon the people to whom he has been sent, although the veracity of a prophet is ultimately determined by the success of his will. However, one of a greater degree, whose preparation is meticulous, experiences no aberration when he receives his prophecy from the blessed Holy One. Hence, he will not increase the channels and vessels, since his prophecy is clear, concise, and easily and quickly accepted by those to whom he has been sent.
It is possible that the smaller may succeed more than the greater
Besides the aforementioned, it is possible for the smallest of prophets to succeed with his prophecy even more than the greatest prophet—concerning the aforementioned brevity—since he relies on the revelations of prior prophets, who paved his way for him. It also depends on the development of his audience, since clear and concise words require a more developed generation, so they can understand him. And if these two [conditions] augment one of a small degree, he can succeed far more than a great one [cf. John of Salisbury, Metalogicon 257].
The secret of prophecy through the generations
Although Moses our teacher, peace be upon him, received the Torah and the statutes for all the generations, to such an extent that a prophet is not permitted any innovations, his prophecy was only given for a time. This is attested to by: A prophet like me from your midst, from your brothers, YHWH will raise up. Him shall you heed (Deuteronomy 18:15). If the prophecy of Moses, peace be upon him, were enough for all eternity, why would the blessed Holy One send any other prophets such as him? Clearly, his prophecy was effective only for its time. And when that time is through, the blessed Holy One sends another prophet to extend or complete His desire.
Yet, the prophet is not permitted to renew or subtract a thing, for this would mean that there was a deficiency in the previous prophet, perish the thought. Rather, the words of the blessed Holy One are always perfect, as is written, I am the fist and I am the last (Isaiah 44:6). And his only task is to extend that same prophecy to those generations that are no longer worthy of receiving from the first.
And the final prophet is the mystery of מָשִׁיחַ (mashiaḥ), Messiah, who fulfills them all. He, too, is certainly not permitted to add or subtract, but his success will be greater, since the whole generation will be fit to receive his words and be fulfilled through him. This is so for two reasons: either because of their greatness, or because of his contemporaries, or because of both.
The essence of prophetic success
The essence of prophetic success is לְהַמשִׁיך (le-hamshikh), to draw, the supernal light down to the lowest ones below. The one who brings it lowest is the most successful. Above and below are measured in spirit and in physical benefit, since the physical obtained by prophecy is the point that gives people footing, and it is known that the focal point in the work of God is the first footing.
A general force and a particular force
Their uniqueness is the unity of the blessed Holy One and the Shekhinah. A particular force is forbidden reception until the lowest degree, and a general force is the multiplication of giving with all his might and his very being.