Walk This Way
Leviticus 26:3 says, "If you will walk in My decrees and guard My commandments and you do them..." The verses go on to list blessings we will receive for following God's directives. These are the spiritual principles that govern the universe. This is how the Almighty designed things.
Even though we'd be crazy to ignore His principles, He still rewards our efforts to do that which is crazy not to. Our Creator wants what is good for us, encourages us to do it, and then rewards us for doing it. Is this kind of love comprehensible?
Principles, Not Laws
Certainly there are do's and don'ts in the "Instructions for living" we call the Torah. But they aren't the same as the laws of the land we live in. For the laws of the land, there are specific rules, and punishments to fit those rules. With the Creator's Torah, there are principles, 613 to be exact. Yet the fulfillment of these principles can't be put into a law book; they are principles to live by. They are attitudes to permeate your outlook. That's why the opening verse uses the phrase "walk in my decrees." As the common phrase these days implies, "walk the walk" is a general mode of behavior, not just a specific set of rules.
It would be easier, no doubt, to list a set of rules to follow. That would happily take less thought and sensitivity on our part. Unfortunately, that's not what spirituality is all about.
"Don't cut down the fruit trees in war" says one of the commandments. If that was all we had to do, most of us would be off the hook. After all, how many of us are going to war, and who will be inclined to kill a fruit tree? Chalk that one up for me, only 612 to go.
Not so fast.
The idea behind the mitzvah is to care for and value any useful thing in the universe. That goes for the fruit tree, the person next to you, a piece of paper, and even a grain of rice (if you take the principle far enough). You could spend your entire life trying to appreciate useful items. You could branch out to appreciating the nuances of personalities, to making sure no child is hungry, or working for worldwide recycling. It's all a piece of God, take good care of it.
Each and every mitzvah is a world of appreciation, an infinite piece of the Creator, and an avenue of spirituality without bounds. There are infinite possibilities. Talk about room for growth!
RIGHT AND WRONG
This doesn't mean there are no fixed rules. Some things are black and white, wrong and right. If it's wrong to steal, it's wrong to steal. Walking in the pathways of spirituality is not an excuse to be lax in our commitment to morality. Some people don't like rules and regulations, and gravitate toward a flimsy sense of spirituality that makes no demands whatsoever. If they are in the mood, they will keep the extra change from the cashier. "I guess the gods are on my side today," you might think. It's my good karma coming back to me.
Some cashiers are responsible for the mistakes they make and will have to pay for the wrong change you took. And even if they're not, it's still wrong to take it.
There are rules of morality. To take a life unnecessarily is a transgression. To give a dollar to charity is a good thing. Some acts are clear-cut. That's called the "letter of the law," and it is important, too. Yet the "spirit of the law" is what we're talking about. Never let the letter of the law go without the spirit of the law, or you will wind up with an empty religion.
As one of my teachers used to say, "Strictly follow the law, but don't follow the law strictly." The law is our guide and our only connection to the Infinite. But life has fluctuations of every kind and variety. The law needs to find a resting place in the reality of your situation.
What's more important?
That's the $64,000 question. The Talmud tells us that God is found in the "four measurements of Jewish Law." This famous quote could have been stated more simply: "God is found in Jewish Law." But the Sages mentioned something specific - four measurements - because the details are important to the Almighty. He gave us those details, and by being precise we show that His will is important to us. We want to do it exactly. If my wife asks me to pick up some flowers, I don't just go out to the yard to pick what's growing there. I want to know what kind of flowers she wants, why she wants them, and how she wants them to look - because her needs and wishes are important to me. If God's wishes are important to you, you'll find out in detail exactly what He wants and why.
It's not a valid question to ask which is more important, the spirit or the letter. They are one and the same. If you are following the spirit of the law by being honest in business dealings, but don't take the time to find out what practices are forbidden and what practices are permitted, you don't really care about God's principle. And if you get caught up in the details, and don't act like an emissary of God in your business practices, you'll end up making mistakes in some important areas of your relationship with God and man.
The spirit and the letter, the principle and the detail, are one and the same. They are both partners in the path to the Creator.
Pick one of the commandments you relate to and write down clearly (or articulate to someone) what the principle or spirit of the law is, and what are a few of the details or letter of the law. If you don't know, ask your local rabbi.