Bechukotai 5760

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bechukotai

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW

Bechukotai begins with a short description of the rewards and blessings that will follow from obeying the laws of the Torah. The promised rewards are followed with a somewhat longer section of curses, which will be the punishment if the people do not keep God’s ways. The parasha, and the book of Leviticus, ends with laws pertaining to the valuation of gifts to the Temple, which might include land, animals, or even the worth of one’s own person.

IN FOCUS

“If you will walk in My decrees and guard My commandments and do them, then I will provide the rains in their proper times. . . . ” (Leviticus 26:3)

PSHAT

The post-script to all the laws of the book of Leviticus is a straightforward theology of reward and punishment: if Israel follows the Torah, good and blessing will follow, but if Israel does not obey, God will send all sorts of calamities down upon the people.

DRASH

Let’s leave to one side the question of Heavenly reward and punishment; it is an important and controversial topic, but for this week let’s focus on the verse which introduces this portion, quoted above. (However, for a discussion of some of the theological issues related to this parasha, see our archived Reb on the Web discourse. )

Rashi and others note that verse 3 seems to repeat itself. Rashi points out that “walking in [God’s] decrees” might be understood to mean “performing the commandments,” but then the verse goes on to say exactly that- “guard My commandments and do them.” So Rashi, based on an earlier midrash, will tell us that “walking in God’s decrees” means “labouring in Torah study.” Thus, Rashi reads the verse like this: “if you will labor in Torah study and keep the commandments and perform them. . . ”

This idea is picked up by many of the other commentators as well; the Ohr HaChaim lists no fewer than 42 (! !) reasons why Torah study is understood to be “walking in God’s decrees.” Two of my favorites are #1 and #3. The first reason that the Ohr HaChaim gives for the Torah’s linkage of “walking” and “God’s decrees” is that we should discuss Torah even while just walking along our way, just as the verse in Deuteronomy says: “and you should speak of them. . . while walking on your way.” (Deut. 6:7, part of the first paragraph of the Shma.)

I like this because it suggests that fulfilling the Torah (however one understands that to happen) in a rote, automatic way isn’t enough- one has to let Judaism permeate one’s being, so that spiritual thoughts and topics just naturally occur while doing other things, even just walking along. Religion isn’t just a matter of doing a bunch of commanded rituals, or confined to the synagogue on Shabbat morning, but should live and breath in our lives. Furthermore, notice that we should talk about what we’ve learned and what we’re doing- not taking it for granted or accepting it automatically, but sharing it, processing it, turning it around, getting new ideas and refining old ones all the time.

The third homiletic meaning of this verse, according to the Ohr HaChaim, is based on the famous teaching that Torah study can happen on 4 “levels”: the plain meaning of the text (pshat); the homiletic or moral expounding of the text (remez); the midrashic or imaginative interpretation (drash); and the secret, mystical meaning (sod.) Based on this concept, the Or HaChaim writes:

    These four methods between them account for what our sages call the 70 facets of the Torah. Each of these 70 facets is perceived as being a “path” one walks in the study of God’s teachings. The lesson is that the approach to Torah study should be along a variety of paths.

Thus, not only should we be letting Torah (understood broadly as Jewish teachings) permeate our everyday activities, we should learn the multiple meanings that Torah can encompass. Again, this suggests to me that learning is a dynamic, creative process- one doesn’t learn just one way of doing something, or only one interpretation, but one “walks a variety of paths,” paying attention to different ways of understanding and challenging oneself with new perspectives. In our day, in addition to the 4 “paths” of Torah interpretation, we might add: looking at historical contexts; feminist perspectives; viewing texts in the light of contemporary theologies; denominational perspectives; comparing traditional texts with modern ethical sensibilities; literary theory, and other ways of thinking that we haven’t even thought of yet.

Finally, one additional interpretation of “walking in God’s Torah” will help us pull these threads together. From the Chasidic anthology ‘Itturei Torah‘ (Torah Gems):

    “If you will walk in My decrees. . . ” [This means] that one must labor in Torah, according to Rashi. But why then the language of “walking,” since it could have been explicit: “If you will study, ” or “If you will occupy yourselves with Torah?” Because the “going” is the main thing. From the borders [going] all the way up from level to level, one gets to know the quality of laboring and investing oneself in one’s studies. (Translation mine.)

As so many others have said, it’s not where you are, it’s where you’re going, and the fact that you’re putting effort in to get there. As long as you’re “on the path,” and investing yourself in the learning process, that’s the main thing. All of these commentators are suggesting that Jewish growth happens over time in a process of interaction with the texts and traditions- you get out of it what you put into it, like any other educational or developmental process. “Walking” in Torah study means not staying in one place, but growing and learning and deepening one’s perspectives throughout one’s life.

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