PARASHAT BEHUKOTAI: Jewish instinct

Although learning Torah is counted as one of the Torah’s commandments, it stands alone and unique above all the other commandments.

By SHMUEL RABINOWITZ
May 23, 2019 08:28
3 minute read.
PARASHAT BEHUKOTAI: Jewish instinct

THE LATE Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv learns Torah.. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

 
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The first part of this week’s Torah portion, Behukotai, describes a covenant between God and the Jewish nation. According to some commentators, this covenant was made around the time of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, as described in the Book of Exodus – that is to say, when the nation received the Torah.
 
The covenant’s style is: “If you behave in a positive manner, you will be rewarded; and if you behave negatively, you will be punished.” 
 
The promised reward is: “I will give your rains in their time, the land will yield its produce... and you will live in security in your land. And I will grant peace in the land... with no one to frighten [you].... And I will make you fruitful and increase you....  And I will place My dwelling in your midst....” (Leviticus 26:4-11).

This utopian description – described here only partially – is conditioned upon the nation’s behavior: “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments” (ibid. 26:3), you will merit all these amazing promises: economic abundance, security, demographic increase, and so forth.
The famous Torah commentator Rashi turns our attention to the repetitiveness in the verse “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments.” What is the difference between following statutes and observing commandments? They are seemingly identical, so why repeat the same thing with slightly different words? Rashi concludes that they are not actually the same. Let us read Rashi’s answer:

“‘If you follow My statutes’ – I might think that this refers to the fulfillment of the commandments. However, when Scripture says ‘and observe My commandments,’ the fulfillment of the commandments is [already] stated. So what is the meaning of ‘If you follow My statutes’? It means that you must toil in the study of Torah.”

According to this explanation, the condition for the promised material and spiritual abundance is twofold: If you toil in the study of Torah and also fulfill the commandments, you will merit the promised abundance. Although studying Torah is counted as one of the Torah’s commandments, it stands alone and unique above all the other commandments. This added value is conditioned on the continuation of the verse, as Rashi points out:
 
“You shall toil in the study of Torah in order to observe and fulfill [the commandments].” 
 
Studying Torah cannot be disconnected from fulfilling commandments. The intellectual, sometimes even theoretical, study provides a strong basis for a correct understanding of how to fulfill the commandments. Studying Torah without it leading to fulfilling commandments is like plowed land that isn’t seeded. It is worse than someone who isn’t familiar at all with the Torah and doesn’t fulfill its commandments. Whoever studies without having the goal of keeping the Torah is expressing disdain for it, becoming familiar with the Torah only to reject what is written in it.


IN THE midrash, we find an even more sensitive interpretation of “If you follow [literally, ‘walk in’] My statutes.” A statute is fulfilled or kept. What does it mean to “walk in a statute”? The midrash quotes a verse from Psalms to explain:
 
“‘If you walk in My statutes’ – this is what is written (Psalms 119:59), ‘I considered my ways and I turned my feet to your testimonies.’ David said, ‘Master of the universe! On each and every day, I would consider and say, “To place x and to residence y am I walking,” but my feet would bring me to the synagogues and to the houses of study.’ This is what is written, ‘I considered my ways and I turned my feet to your testimonies’” (Leviticus Raba 35).
 
The midrash describes King David as someone thinking of going to various places, likely relating to the wide-ranging issues of the kingdom, but he suddenly finds his legs carrying him elsewhere: to synagogues and houses of study!
 
We all recognize this phenomenon of thinking about doing one thing, but our instincts lead us to doing something else. When this happens, it points to a habit or characteristic deeply embedded in our soul. 
 
This is how the midrash explains “If you follow My statutes.” We must study Torah in order to fulfill its commandments with such a deep connection that our basic instincts will be Jewish and will lead us to the proper and correct actions. In this way, we will merit the material and spiritual abundance promised in this week’s Torah portion.


The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.


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