Bechukotai 5767 — Walking God’s Way
Im bechukotai talachu…“If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them, Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. And your threshing shall last to the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last to the sowing time; and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will remove evil beasts from the land, nor shall the sword go through your land.”…Lev 26:3-6
You’re probably wondering, “why is the Rabbi wearing a bicycle helmet?” I’m glad it’s Shabbat, so you can’t take a picture!
Certainly I was hoping I would get your attention – the reason I’m wearing a helmet is to illustrate the fact that I rode a bicycle here this morning. And my decision to ride a bicycle here this morning, instead of either walking on the one hand or driving on the other hand is at the heart of what I want to talk about this morning.
The second of this week’s two Torah portions, Bechukotai, begins im bechukotai talachu…“If you walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments, and do them, Then I will give you rain in due season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. And your threshing shall last to the time of vintage, and the vintage shall last to the sowing time; and you shall eat your bread to the full, and dwell in your land safely. And I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid; and I will remove evil beasts from the land, nor shall the sword go through your land.”…Lev 26:3-6
“If you will walk in my statutes.” God promises many blessings if we but “walk in God’s statutes.” On Thursday I discussed this teaching with the kids at the graduation ceremony for Talmud Torah. I asked, “Does this teaching apply to us? We’re not farmers, we’re not so worried about the rain, so does this passage really concern us at all?”
Most of the kids understood that this passage is to be understood metaphorically, not literally. It’s not specifically about rain, but rather it is telling us that if we walk in God statutes we will have a good life. But just what does it mean “to walk in God statutes?”
On one level, I would suggest it means to obey God’s commandments. Follow God’s rules. But how do we do that? How do we follow God’s rules?
In the Jewish tradition, we understand following God’s rules as meaning obeying the halacha, Jewish law. But the halacha does not come directly from God – halacha is the rabbis’ interpretation of God’s rules as given in the Torah.
There are some people have told me “Rabbi, no disrespect, but I don’t want to follow what some bunch of rabbis had to say – I want to follow what God commands. Just tell me what the Torah commands, not what some rabbis made up. That’s what I’ll follow.”
There are people who do exactly that – who try to follow the Torah without the interpretation of the rabbis. But those people are not Jews, at least not from our perspective, and not like us – those people are called Karaites, and they follow a religion which split off from Judaism over 1300 years ago. Their religion is very different than our religion. Of course, they claim it was we who split off by deciding to follow the rabbis instead of the Torah. THEY consider themselves the real Jews.
What does it mean to just follow the Torah without rabbinic interpretation? For one thing, one of most young Jews’ favorite holidays is missing – no Chanuka, since that is a later rabbinic holiday. They often celebrate the Biblical holidays on different days than we do, because they don’t figure the calendar the same way. The Karaites of old sat in the dark on Shabbat, because they would not allow a candle to burn on the Sabbath day. They forbid sexual relations on the Sabbath, whereas we rabbinic Jews consider it a mitzvah to have relations with one’s spouse on the Sabbath. They eat meat and milk together, because the Torah says “don’t boil a kid in it’s mother’s milk,” not don’t eat a cheeseburger. They mostly hold that who is a Jew is determined by having a Jewish father, not a Jewish mother.
After I explain the differences, the people who say they want to follow only what’s in the Torah will usually allow how maybe they really are rabbinic Jews at heart. But even if you decide that yes, you are a rabbinic Jew, does that really tell you what to do “walk in God’s statutes?”
And here we come back to my bicycle helmet, and my ride to shul this morning. There are some rabbis who would say it is forbidden to ride a bicycle on the Sabbath, and in fact it is scandalous that I, a rabbi, wore a bicycle helmet in shul, as a sinner should at least be embarrassed by his sins. There are other rabbis who will say that it is not only OK to ride a bicycle to shul, it is perfectly OK to drive a car to shul. And there are other rabbis, some Reform rabbis, who might say it is OK to drive anywhere you want on the Sabbath, to the beach or a museum.
How is it that we ended up with so many different answers to a seemingly simple question?
Halacha, Jewish law, is legal system which has many different principles. Sometimes those principles come into conflict, one with another, and there are different approaches to deciding which principle to apply in case of conflict.
The rabbis traditionally have been very concerned about taking care to avoid violating God’s rules. We often follow the advice of the Men of the Great Assembly, as recorded in Pirkei Avot: asu siyag latorah, make a fence around the Torah, put in place rules that will prevent people from accidentally violating one of God’s commandments.
There are some in the Jewish world who are very strict about following the commandments, and who seem to get stricter all the time. That’s because they are following a principal in the Talmud which says that a later beit din, rabbinic court, cannot overturn a “fence” of an earlier beit din unless they are greater in wisdom and in number than the earlier court. Since we have great respect for the past, which court today could be greater and wisdom in number than an earlier court that was closer to the time of Mount Sinai? Using that logic you can end up with a system that can only ratchet in the direction of greater stringency, since you can add chumrot, stringencies, but you can’t get rid of them when the times change and perhaps an old stringency no longer applies. So for example some rabbis won’t allow taking medicine on Shabbat unless it’s a matter of life and death because rabbis long ago banned taking unnecessary medicine on the Sabbath because people might grind their own medicines, and grinding is not permitted on the Sabbath. Even though today we buy our medicines in jars and bottles and no one grinds them, those rabbis won’t overturn an older fence, even if it is no longer relevant. Since some respected rabbis ruled against riding a bicycle on Shabbat, they would honor that opinion even if the current situation was different.
At the other extreme, the rabbis who would allow driving a car to the beach or the museum, have taken themselves outside of the system of halacha, because they don’t see those commandments as coming from God, so therefore everyone can simply choose for themselves what makes Shabbat meaningful.
Those of us who follow a middle path – and there are differences in the middle path, some rabbis saying it is OK to drive but only to the synagogue on Shabbat, others saying it’s not OK to drive anywhere, but it is OK to ride a bicycle – we are still working within the halachic system, but we apply the principles differently than those who are stricter.
There is an opinon brought in the Yerushalmi Talmud which says that the principle that a beit din cannot overturn a ruling of an earlier beit din unless it is greater in wisdom and in number only applies to 18 specific rulings that were decided in favor of the School of Shammai over the School of Hillel, some 2000 years ago. So following that attitude, we feel that there is room to overturn earlier rabbinic precedent when changes in our situation call for such changes. There is also a principal in halacha ein l’dayan eilah mah sh’einav ro’ot, that a judge has to rule in accordance with what his eyes see, in accordance with the issues before him, not according to a situation that was the case years earlier. There is a another principle that I especially enjoy – the Ben Ish Chai, the chief rabbi in Baghdad in the mid-1800s, also allowed riding a bicycle on Shabbat. He said “the Torah already forbids enough things, we don’t need to go looking for more.”
So with all of these different approaches, how do we decide which is the right one?
That brings us back to the opening words of the parsha: “if you will walk in my statutes.” 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 have to 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 derech haTorah, “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 of course 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. When trying to figure out how to follow the rules, or deciding which rabbi’s decisions to follow, we have to see which is consistent with the “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.
Madregat Ha’Adam, a 19th century teacher of Mussar, the Jewish system of ethics as spiritual path, took this teaching even a step further – he said we should each turn ourselves into a living Torah. Someone should be able to tell what is written in the Torah just by watching how you conduct yourself.
If we become aware of the “Way of Torah,” everything we do can become a vehicle for connecting with and serving God. As my 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.
Following the “Way of the Torah” can also lead us to forbid things that might be technically permitted. So even though I consider it permissible to use electricity for permitted activities on Shabbat, because I don’t consider electricity a derivative of fire, I don’t allow my kids to watch TV on Shabbat because for me it is not in keeping with the “Way of the Torah” which commands us to make Shabbat different than the week, and to have a restful spirit in the home on Shabbat. Similarly, even though I may ride my bike to shul on Shabbat, I ride at a leisurely pace, because riding fast to get exercise would not be in keeping with the spirit of Shabbat, which I learn from the “Way of the Torah.”
So how do we learn the “Torah Way” to do things? Through studying Torah, through “toiling in Torah.” 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.”
My study of Torah teaches me that there are many fundamental principles that are a part of the “Way of Torah.” Some of the ones that are most important for me include:
- Everyone on the planet is descended from Adam and Eve, and is created in God’s image. Therefore we should look for the Godly in every one of our fellow human beings, Jew and non-Jew alike.
- We are to be kind to everyone, including non-Jewish strangers, because we know what it is like to be a stranger. At the same time, we are allowed to protect ourselves from those that would harm us, as the Torah tells us there is no blood guilt if we kill someone who is breaking into our home at night.
- We have a responsibility to take of poor people, and do it in a way that protects their dignity, as we learn from the commandment to leave a corner of our fields for poor people to harvest.
- Through his covenant with Abraham and the Torah given to Moses, God has defined a relationship with the Jewish people, in which He promises to be our God and we promise to follow His holy instruction manual, the Torah.
- God is compassionate and loving and His mercy extends to a thousand generations, hence if we have to choose between being strictly judgmental and being kind and compassionate we are to choose kindness.
Clearly how we understand the “Way of Torah” is a very personal experience. That’s why I’m not standing here today wagging my finger at people who drove to shul. I’m delighted you’re here and sharing Shabbat with us. How you observe Shabbat is between you and God, and how you understand your relationship with God and mitzvot. I’m not the mitzvah police. If you ask me a question, “rabbi, is such and such permitted or forbidden according to halacha,” I’ll give you an answer, but what you do with that answer is your business.
Not only that, but the answer I give might be different depending on the community I’m in. Halacha does not live in a vacuum. For example, I would say it is OK to eat a dairy meal in a non-supervised restaurant here in Toledo, 60 miles from the nearest kosher restaurant. In Jerusalem, I would give a very different answer. The fact that such a difference exists is for me totally in keeping with both the letter of halacha and the spirit of the “Way of Torah.”
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—to become a “living Torah”—we will have many spiritual blessings and will find great fulfillment.
Sometimes we say we’re too busy to make time to study Torah and learn her ways. We need to remember what the great rabbi Hillel taught us, “do not say ‘when I have leisure, I will study—‘ for you may never have leisure.”