I will begin with the Maharal’s introduction to Derech Chaim, where he explains why he called his work “Derech Chaim” the path to life, or eternity. In this section, he elaborates on a number of different issues.
“A Mitzva is a lamp, Torah is light; and reproofs of (moral) discipline are the the path of eternity”. G-d put man on this earth in a physical body, which provides a murky environment in which the soul must dwell. To free himself from this darkness, man looks for light to illuminate a path that will lead him in a direction towards the Divine. His intellect can serve as a guiding light, but it is limited in its ability. While it is equipped to help man choose and navigate his personal path and direction in worldly pursuits, it is not able to clearly discern the path that will lead man closer to G-d.
The Torah commands us to pursue just such a path. “You shall walk after the L-rd your G-d…and you shall serve him, and cleave to Him” (Deut. 13:5). This requires man to correctly differentiate between activities that G-d desires and activities that distance man from G-d, something not accurately determinable by the human intellect. [See more on this idea in the introduction to Tiferet Yisrael.] Only the Torah and its commandments can accurately provide this illumination, “For a commandment is a lamp and Torah is light.”
A lamp is dependent on physical substances in order to produce its light — the wick, oil, a reflector — and that light can be said to be “attatched to” and dependent on something material. Because of this dependence, its purity is diminished compared to a pure and more abstract form of light. A commandment is an act performed by man using the medium of his physical body. Through this act a Divine light is able to attatch itself to that physical body and cast illumination from it, since the act is based on Divine wisdom and the will of G-d. The quality of the Divine illumination of this Mitzvah act parallels the illumination of a lamp.
Torah wisdom, on the other hand, is completely abstract and independent of the material, as is pure light. It is a completely intellectual and spiritual activity, which transcends the physical boundaries of man. Therefore the Torah is compared to pure light.
The Talmud (Tr. Sotah 21a) teaches that Rabbi Menachem the son of Rabbi Yossi expounded on the verse that compares a commandment to a lamp and the Torah to light. Just as a lamp illuminates only temporarily so, too, does a commandment protect (from the yeitzer hara) only temporarily; just as pure light is ongoing illumination, so, too, does the Torah provide ongoing and lasting protection”.
This is understood by recognizing that man, as a physical being bound by time, is finite, and commandments which are performed by man using his physical body will have their effect limited by time. Therefore a commandment’s protection is only temporary. Torah knowledge, however, is abstract, and being of an intellectual and spiritual nature, it is transcendant, infinite, with no physical attatchments or limitations. Through his connection to Torah knowldege, man is the recepient of eternal protection, since Torah is not bound by the time limitations of the finite.
(What is meant by “protection from the yeitzer hara?” I would suggest that the yeitzer hara be understood as the forces of confusion and external dependencies that exist within man, making him susceptible to sin. When man has a clarity of what is expected of him, and he has the independence to act on that vision, he has freed himself from the yeitzer hara. While man is performing a mitzvah, he is in a temporary state of clarity and independence, and is insulated from committing a sin. But that state doesn’t necessarily last very long after he has completed the Mitzvah, and he can revert to a state of confusion, as well as dependencies, both physical and social. Torah study, on the other hand, gives one clarity of vision and purpose which continues even after the Torah has been learned, and insulates one from the drives of the yeitzer hara on an ongoing basis.)
In summary, Torah and Mitzvot are the guiding lights which lead man to the fulfillment of his complete purpose of existence, which is to develop a closer and closer attachment to G-d. (It should be noted, adds the Maharal, that the fulfillment of one’s purpose is the motivating force that drives every living creature, and is the subconcious factor governing every creatures activities.)
Proverbs continues: “…and reproofs of discipline are the path of life.” “The path (or “ways”) of life” are not Torah commandments (which were referred to in the first half of the pasuk) but are moral disciplines that man’s intelligence dictates should govern his life. We will explain why discipline is considered the path to life.
The Midrash comments on the verse (Gen. 3:24) “Lishmor derech eitz hachaim” …to guard the path to the Tree of Life: Derech Eretz (ethical behavior, alluded to with the word “derech”) preceeded the Torah (alluded to by the phrase “eitz hachaim) by 26 generations. (The Torah was given on Sinai during the 26th generation after creation. There were 10 generations from Adam (1) to Noach (10), another 10 generations until Avraham (20), followed by Yitzchak (21), Yakov (22), Levi (23), Kehat (24), Amram (25), and Moshe Rabbeinu (26) in whose generation the Torah was given. Derech Eretz, however, existed in the world from the time of creation, 26 generations earlier.)
We need to understand why Torah is represented by a tree, and derech eretz (proper worldly conduct) by a path. This will be explained next week.