Weekly Torah Commentary: Perashat Behukotai- Walk This Way

Here we are, at the close of the book of Vayikra, “Leviticus”, the Book of Holiness, concerned primarily with what was intended to be the highest service, that of the Temple, the sacrifices, and the priesthood. However, as the Bet Yaakov points out, this Torah portion does not begin as do most of the others, with a speech act to Moshe, that is, with the usual “And God spoke to Moshe”. Here, the segment begins with Im behklotai tailaichu, “if only you would walk in My ways and keep My commandments and make them happen”.

This “if only” is read by the Bet Yaakov as describing not a command, but a prayer on God’s part. It is not a command that is needed after the presentation of so much holiness, for a command can not actualize holiness; what is needed to make holiness happen is a personal prayer.

This perasha, then, is God’s prayer, in which he prays, if only all people would listen to these words and embark upon the road to holiness. In this perasha God begs us to lead meaningful lives, with the blessings described later in this section serving as inducement, accompanied by curses as warning.

So what are these blessings offered for living a life of spiritual piety? Oddly, very naturalistic rewards – that the rain will fall, the earth will give forth produce, etc. Very natural, seemingly coarse physical rewards. Does that not seem a bit of a let-down, an anti-climax? After all, we have just concluded an entire book narrating a Temple service seemingly concerned with achieving an other-worldly, transcendent holiness. How then to reconcile these seemingly very material rewards for spiritual achievement?

The Hasidic thinkers were troubled by this discrepancy and worked out several novel solutions. One approach is to read out the materiality altogether from these material promises. The Noam Elimelech suggests that these blessings do not refer to material rewards at all, but refer to the spiritual essences embedded within nature and all within all things around us. The reward is not found in the surface value of the material gifts, but rather in the spiritual ‘sparks’ within all things.

A second approach is to state that the blessings enumerated here aren’t meant as ‘rewards’ at all for following the mitzvoth, rather, they are the natural outcomes of proper living. The Tiferet Shelomo argues that the rewards stated here cannot be rewards for the actual mitzvot done, for we are taught in BT Kiddushin 39: schar mitzva b’hai alma leka, the reward for mitzvot is not in this world, reward comes later, in the World to Come. The blessings spoken of here are a result of the “going” in God’s way, the shmartem (concern, observance) prior to the va’asitem (the action itself), the concern, the yearning to fulfill the commandments prior to, both temporally and transcendentally prior to the actual observance. For this yearning we are given physical rewards, but in terms of reward for the fulfillment of the commandments themselves, there is no material reward, there is a much greater reward, but it is on another plane.

However, there needs to be, in the material world, a sign, an outcome that defends proper living, if proper living is a cause, there must be an effect in the natural world. What is the outcome that allows us to gauge how closely we are in alignment with the proper way to live? The Tiferet Shelomo answers that when we live correctly, our correct manner of living is reflected in a proper order in nature. These aren’t rewards so much as signs of proper living.

Our actions, when they are correct actions, make the world around us correspondingly correct. Thus, these manifestations of correct order in nature are not really rewards, but a reciprocal alignment of nature to our actions: If we keep our lives in the proper order, then the world will be maintained in a proper order. The world about us is not so much a gift but a direct consequence of our actions (there is a similar teaching from the Baal Shem Tov regarding God’s response to us; the Baal Shem Tov explains the phrase Hashem Tzilcha, “God is your shadow” as meaning that God’s actions are a parallel reflection of our actions, we make choices in how we deal with the world around us and so does God “shadow” our choices and actions).

A personal anecdote. Several year ago, while leading the Jewish community of Juneau, Alaska, for the High Holidays, we studied the prayers together. I had the traditional prayer texts I brought with me from Seattle, whereas the community had an edited prayerbook, with which I was not previously familiar. In that edition of the prayerbook, the sections of the Shema (the central prayer of “Hear O Israel”), specifically the section beginning v’haya im shamoa, were condensed, and the verses ostensibly dealing with reward and punishment (verses which are very similar to the ones in this week’s Torah portion of Behukotai) were expurgated. At that time I presented the Tiferet Shelomo’s reading, explaining the apparent reward and punishment passages as representing a direct response and corollary to human activity. As Juneau is the state capital of Alaska, many members of the community work as environmental activists and lawyers. “Perhaps in New York City the idea of nature responding to human activity seems primitive”, someone suggested as an explanation for the censoring of the original text, “but out here we know that if you strip mine the land, and exploit all the natural resources, you will cause acid rain to fall, and destroy the environment”. After these discussions, the community requested that for the Rosh Hashana service, instead of using the abridged text in their book, we photocopy the full text of the Shema and at the service, one of the environmental lobbyists in the community read the full restored text out loud in English and Hebrew.

The Kedushat Levi and the Bat Ayin extend this approach into the realm of the personal, to human society, so that our verse’s admonition to “walk in God’s ways” must lead to a proper and harmonious social system. If we live properly and harmoniously, emulating God’s ways, then God’s ways should be reflected as an enhancement of society – by fulfilling the commandment of giving charity, for example- the blessing will be that we will have adequate food and supplies to be able to give to the poor and improve the lot of all of humanity.

In summary, then, we see how the end goal and purpose of all the spiritual and ritual practices enumerated in the Book of Vayikra, the reward and sign of the spiritual life – is the transformation and rectification, in a corresponding manner, of both the natural order and of human society.

As a “footnote” to this approach, note the interesting use of the verb for walking in the opening line of this Torah reading. Our verse (22:3) states:

If in my statutes (“hukim”) you walk, and my commandments you guard, and you shall do them…

The Meor Eynaim states that the metaphor of walking is specifically linked to the form of commandment known as “chok”, a mode of law traditionally described as being beyond the rational, based on faith, such as the red heifer ceremony, rather than to social or criminal law. Faith is described in BT Makkot 24. as being that upon which everything “stands” (that is the verb used in the Talmud):

Habakuk came and stood everything upon one (principle): “The righteous in their faith shall live” (Habakuk 2:4).

Faith, explains the Meor Eynaim, as that upon which all stands is, then, equivalent to the legs, upon which the individual stands. Hence, one who keeps the chukim, the faith-based statutes, can be described as one who walks, it leads to forward-moving, progressive life.

The Mei Hashiloach, on the other hand, contrasts an embodied “standing” to the non-fixed “walking”. When Gods word is not deeply implanted in one’s heart, then one can remain in the state of standing, keeping one’s balance to maintain an upright position, as any challenge, any potential spiritual hurdle, must be avoided, lest it cause one to fall. However, when a person empties his or her heart to a greater purpose, when one self-annihilates the ego, then one transcends being “situated”, and thus dis-embodied has the ability to expand into and influence one’s surroundings; the ability to “walk” is the ability to move about and face the world fully without overwhelming fear of the challenges real life places before us.

The Kedushat Levi, in a similar manner, explains this verse with its imagery of walking as a reassurance for attempting spiritual growth even if one is unsure of one’s own abilities. The Kedushat Levi reads our verse in parallel with a teaching from the early midrash known as the Tana Devei Eliyahu:

…as it states in Tana Devei Eliyahu: one who is shoneh halachot, who studies the Torah laws every day is promised [the world to come]. This refers to the Righteous. And this is the meaning of “shoneh halachot”- one who every day alters (shoneh– the word in Hebrew means both ‘to study’ and ‘to change’) his goings (halichotav– here the word halacha, law, is read as being derived from the infinitive “lalechet”, to walk), that is, every day is holech, journeys, to a higher and higher level, then that one is certainly one who earns the World to Come’ (Kedushat Levi, Behukotai)

Thus, here “walking” is seen as the stepping forward in freedom, a progressive ‘journey towards’, a ‘way beyond’ the fixed given condition of spiritual inertia. Embark upon this journey, suggests the verse, according to the Kedushat Levi’s reading, go forward, Avanti!

The other clause in this verse, v’asitem otam, you shall do them, you shall accomplish them, is also meant as supportive encouragement- take these steps, take this journey, even if you may occasionally stumble and sometimes even fall when attempting to move forward upon the path of personal spiritual growth and world transformation, from the greater perspective, you will still be credited as though “v’asitem otam”, as if the goals had been accomplished and praxis achieved. The will to be better already makes the world better, the act of embarking upon the journey already brings the end of the journey into the realm of the possible and achievable.

Thus this text, read in this manner, is a profound statement with which to end the Book of Vayikra, the book in which the details of holiness are so central: Holiness, the vehicle in which one chooses to journey through life with a dream of positively transforming both physical and spiritual life for one’s self and for all living things, is already achieved – by simply taking the first step in that direction.