Every worthwhile goal is both approachable and unreachable. Ponder that for a moment and apply it to your goals.
Our paradigmatic goal in Judaism, and probably all spiritual traditions, is to as closely as possible join ourselves with The Creator. Our tradition emphasizes that God’s reality is infinite dimensions beyond our comprehension. As vastly infinite as is the Torah in all it’s levels of understanding and engagement, God’s true reality is a totally different order of infinity and He is ultimately unreachable. Nonetheless, we’ve been gifted a set of detailed instructions to bring us ever closer to that aspect of Him that He makes available (and no matter how infinitesimal a portion of that greater infinity that might be, from our human perspective it is Infinite).
A worthwhile approach, and a goal in itself, is to bring holiness, which largely means becoming aware of the holiness that is already there, into every conscious moment. The comprehensive world of mitzvot are designed as a tool to reach for this. The reason that halachot are provided for almost every waking moment, from how we get out of bed until we retire at the end of the day is as if to say, “You can connect with God every moment of every day. If you want to try that at this moment, here’s a suggested method geared exactly to this minute.” In other words the web of halacha which, from the outside, can seem intrusive and coercive, rather is to present us at all times with an up-to-the-moment “route” to our goal.
The danger inherent in this approach is that it’s too easy to err and think that these mitzvot are the only paths to our goal. There is another trap which, because of the number of available daily, weekly and yearly mitzvot, is fooled into thinking that even mechanical and rote performances of these mitzvot is all that is required.
Ideally, when a mitzva is optimally performed it brings with it a conscious awareness of God’s presence. Since, optimally, kavana, intention is actually the most important component in “bringing our selves to the table” for our active relationship with The Infinite, rote performance is not enough. Additionally, being constantly involved with fulfilling mitzvot is not the same as being continuously engaged. Even with the greatest kavana when we’re filling a mitzva, there are empty spaces in between each one, and these also, perhaps even more than during “mitzva time” need to filled with the Infinite Light.
Mitzvot are, indeed, important. In the jargon of logic, they are necessary. However, even optimally performed with the highest kavana and love and awareness (I’m translating יראה, Yirah, often translated as fear, but better as awe, and even better, relying on the root of the word, ראה, re’eh, which means “to see”, awareness.) they’re not sufficient in themselves.
In addition to, and not substituting for, the mitzvot, we need to train ourselves to recognize God in each moment and each corner of Creation. When we view at a beautiful landscape, we want to see, beyond the inherent beauty (and perhaps the cause of that beauty), the living presence of God who continuously gives life energy for that view to exist and to ourselves to be able to see it. We want to see God in every person we meet as well as in ourselves. We also need to see God in every tragedy, pain, illness and injustice, perhaps at least by acknowledging that those events transcend our understanding of them in their full implications. (In fact, we have a halacha that we’re mandated to bless the bad that befalls us exactly as we do the good–it all comes from beyond us and beyond our comprehension.)
Mitzvot and Torah study can give us a start and a technique to develop this awareness, but we need to work out for ourselves, each of us as a unique individual, how to take those consciousness results into the rest of our lives. It’s a challenge that can, at times, seem too hard, and we acknowledge that ultimately we will fail. But in failing to completely reach this goal we will still approach it as much as we’re able. We’ll at least partially succeed to a much higher degree than otherwise.
There is a phenomenon in analytical geometry of the asymptote. Certain curves will infinitely approach a boundary, always cutting the distance but never quite getting there. This model pretty well describes our spiritual goals. It’s also described in a Mishna in Avot (2:21), “.לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמוֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה…”, “We’re not expected to complete the work, but we’re not empowered to shirk the effort.” Rather than stating it in such legalistic, even if we don’t (and can’t) take every step, each one we do take brings us closer. This applies to those steps which are mitzvot just as much as it does to other steps we take that might be parallel to, but not included in, the mitzva system.
מתן תורה, Matan Torah, the revelation of Torah which we re-experience every year on Shavuot, provided us with a direct experience of total awareness of God, even before we were given the “roadmap” to recreate that spiritual moment forward. ימין ושמאל, Yamin U’Smole, Right and Left, we need both the mitzvot and the a-halachic systems going full-out, each of us according to the needs and mandates of our individual, unique neshamot.