Bechukotai 5763 — If you will walk in my statutes
“If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them” …Leviticus 26:3
“If you will walk in my statutes.” This is a rather odd sounding statement. It’s not exactly a commandment to obey the commandments. Here it says “IF you will walk in my statutes…The Kli Yakar points out that we do not find a commandment anywhere that says we should walk in the statutes. So how do we understand this odd statement?
The Slonimer Rebbe teaches that there are two aspects to the Torah. There are the commandments that are explicitly made in the Torah. The rules for us to obey. Do not have other Gods. Honor the Sabbath. Honor your mother and father. Do not steal or murder. The Slonimer tells that these explicit commandments are not the whole story, however. There is also a spirit of the Torah. If study the Torah, we will find that there is a spirit of the Torah, and a way of the Torah.
In Hebrew the verse tells us talachu, you will walk, in my statutes. Talachu is a different grammatical form of the word halacha, which is the term used for Jewish law—the implication being that Jewish law is a path, a “way to walk.” Similarly, when the Slonimer speaks of the way of Torah, he uses the phrase derech haTorah. Derech also means street or path, or way. This language of “walking in a way” is very similar to the language we hear in other traditions, such as Taoism, whose main text is the Tao Te Ching, “the Way of Life.”
And this is the point of “if you will walk in my statutes.” That we should follow not just the rules in the Torah, but also the spirit and Way of the Torah. All of our actions in life should be infused with the spirit of Torah and a desire to serve God. The verse tells us to bring a “Torah mentality” into our lives, an awareness that the world was created by God and our mission is to serve God. In this way we will follow the Torah not only in things that are specifically commanded to us, but we will also live our lives aligned with the Way of Torah.
If we become aware of the “Way of Torah,” everything we do can become a vehicle for connecting with and serving God. As my friend and teacher Rabbi Yosef Levin put it, going to the grocery store is a spiritual experience if you do it knowing that the purpose of going to the grocery store is to buy food to nourish our bodies so that we can do mitzvot and serve God. Not only that, but we can find there is a “Torah Way” to buy groceries—perhaps that means being courteous to other people, or putting some money in the box at the checkout stand which supports food for poor people, or trying to find packaging that is less wasteful and damaging to the planet.
Rashi, the medieval commentator par excellence, explained that by “toiling in Torah” we can reach this level where all of our halichot olam, our walking in the world, our living our lives, will be for the sake of Heaven. How can we walk in the “Way of Torah” if we don’t know the Torah?
One of my teachers in rabbinical school, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, told us that you could teach someone the nuts and bolts of how to be a rabbi—leading services, officiating at bris’s, bar and bat mitzvahs, weddings, funerals, giving sermons, etc.,–in about six months. So why does it take five years to become a rabbi? He told us it is because we need the time to marinate in Torah, and learn to think like a rabbi. In other words, to learn not just how to look up laws in a book, but we need to learn the “Way of Torah.”
The language Rashi uses, “toiling in Torah,” is perhaps not very helpful in a contemporary context. It makes Torah study sound like something tedious, a difficult chore, but something we must do. Not exactly the kind of inviting language that will encourage people to expand their horizons and include some Torah study as part of their daily routine.
Torah study actually can be a great joy. When I “toil in Torah” I feel like I am straining to hear God speaking to me. There are many different ways of being spiritual. Most of us have had a spiritual experience at special times in our lives, whether it sitting on a mountaintop at dawn, or being present at the birth of child. However, as Jews, we have a special way of being spiritual, of connecting with God: through the written and spoken word. Through learning. Through “toiling in Torah.”
Education is a very important value in Judaism, and it is one that we Jews seem to have gotten the message on. I couldn’t find a number for Canada, but in the States, about 70% of all Jews over the age of 25 are college grads, many with post-graduate degrees. This compares with less than 25% of the non-Jewish white population. One of the ironies of the Jewish world is that despite this very high level of secular learning, and the great value we place on learning in general, many Jews are relatively ignorant about Judaism.
When I was growing up, for all intents and purposes my Jewish education stopped at age 13, and didn’t resume again until I was almost 40. Four university degrees including a PhD, yet I was totally clueless about the foundations of Judaism. If you had asked me when I was 25 what the Jewish picture of God was, I probably would have said “an old white man sitting on a throne in heaven.” Little did I know that our great rabbi Maimonides said a thousand years ago, that anyone who holds such a notion is a FOOL! I couldn’t have told you whether Jews believe in heaven and hell, or what Judaism teaches about the soul, or why we should observe the Sabbath or dietary laws. I couldn’t have told you much of anything about Judaism’s ethical teachings—like obligations to pay one’s workers on time. I would have been hard pressed to come up with more than five or six of the ten commandments.
Sadly, my experience is not at all unusual. I’m sure some of you sitting here today had a similar experience. What I want to tell you is that it’s never too late. The door to learning is always open. By setting aside some time on a regular basis to learn something about Judaism, we can all learn how to walk in the Way of Torah.
In the Midrash it says “All beginnings are difficult (Mechilta Yitro, Bachodesh 2).” If you are interested in learning more about Judaism but don’t know where to begin, there are many paths to explore. “Learning Torah” does not just mean picking up the Bible and reading…as worthwhile as that may be, it’s not the best path for many people. If you were skimming the Hertz chumash in front of you during the service, I will understand if you say it wasn’t the most inspiring experience you’ve ever had. “Torah” includes a lot more than the five books of Moses…all forms of Jewish learning can be included in the phrase “Torah.” The Talmud tells us that a person should study those subjects that speak to his heart. The internet makes getting started easier than ever. If you go to the Beth Tikvah web site, btikvah.ca, and click on Rabbi’s Study, you will find a list of recommended books, with some comments on each. If you go to your favorite search engine—I use Google—and type in “Jewish Learning” you will be led to all sorts of sites which have learning opportunities available. The Jewish Theological Seminary in New York has many online courses available at jtsa.edu. The new Conservative Chumash, Etz Chayim, is a wonderful resource. There are organized programs to study a chapter of the Bible, or a chapter of Mishnah, or for the ambitious a page of Talmud every day. If you’re not “online” copies of my recommended book list are available on the table in the hallway. Give me a call and I’m happy to talk about Jewish learning and make personal suggestions.
This week’s Torah portion also tells us the benefits of “walking the Way of Torah.” It includes a number of blessings we will receive from following the path of Torah, and a long list of curses that will befall us if we don’t follow the path of Torah. The Slonimer Rebbe tells us that these blessings and curses aren’t meant to be understood in a physical sense—we only have to look at the world around us to see righteous people suffering and wicked people prospering. We need to understand the blessings and curses in a spiritual sense. If we learn Torah, and follow not just the rules in a mechanical way, but really learn how to walk in the Way of Torah—learn how to be a Jew, to serve God and to love God—we will have many spiritual blessings and will find great fulfillment.
And remember: as the great rabbi Hillel said, “do not say ‘when I have leisure, I will study—‘ for you may never have leisure.