Parashat Behukotai: Journey and destination

The Bible emphasizes again and again the necessity of "walking" or "progressing" in accordance with the Divine laws.

The Bible emphasizes again and again the necessity of "walking" or "going" or "progressing" (halicha or halacha) in accordance with the Divine laws, whose "paths are paths of pleasantness and whose roads lead to peace." The Almighty introduces the commandment of circumcision to Abraham with the injunction, "walk (hit'halech) before Me and you shall become whole" (Gen. 17:1), and the Moabite Ruth begins her declaration of conversion to Judaism with the promise to her Israelite mother-in-law Naomi: "Wherever you shall walk, there shall I walk." The holy Ohr Hahayim suggests 42 interpretations for the opening phrase of our portion, "If you shall walk in My statutes" - one of the most important being from the Zohar: "Animals do not change from the station into which they are born; this is not true of the human being, who changes by means of his actions and is able to progress from one station to a higher station... from a lower level to a higher level." Emphasis must be placed on the idea of progress, since the Midrash also teaches that the angels, who are considered higher than humans, are called those who stand (omdim), whereas humans are referred to as those who progress (holchim). The renowned hassidic sage Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev writes (on our portion of Behukotai): "the righteous individual is the one who walks, mehalech (or progresses), because he moves from level to level, since one commandment leads to another… Upon this notion it is taught (B.T. Megilla 28b): 'Anyone who studies the laws (halachot) is assured of being a child of the world to come, as it is written (Habakkuk 3:6): 'the progressions or pathways (halichot) of the [eternal] world are his,' and do not read halichot but rather halachot.' This means that such a righteous individual will walk every day into a higher level or station, and is thus assured of being a child of the world to come." From this perspective, "walking in the commandments" implies progress, change, growth - and so the greatest sin becomes complacency, the kind of self-satisfied smugness that insists on remaining in the same place spiritually and religiously. This is how we must understand the commandment which follows the Ten Commandments: "Do not climb up to my altar with steps, but rather with a ramp, so that your nakedness not be revealed" (Exodus 20:23). Rav Moshe Besdin would explain that with steps it is possible to stop and rest, whereas with a ramp you must always be either going up or going down, advancing or regressing. And so, when Rav Shneur Zalman of Liady (author of the Tanya and founder of Chabad hassidism) asked his disciples who stood higher on a ladder, a individual on the third rung or an individual on the 10th, and they all responded, "the individual on the 10th rung," the rebbe rejected their answer. "If the individual on the third rung is going up, and the individual on the 10th is standing still or going down, then the individual on the third rung stands higher than the individual on the 10th." The goal, therefore, is not necessarily perfection, but rather the search, the yearning for perfection. Socrates declared that he was the wisest of men because he knew he did not know everything, and Rebbe Elimelech of Lugansk taught that the tzadik (righteous man) who knew he was a tzadik was lower in God's esteem than the rasha (wicked man) who knew he was a rasha: the rasha at least had a chance to improve! And so the Maharal of Prague explains that there can never be perfection in the world of spirit. The Talmud teaches (Brachot 64a): "Torah scholars are never at rest, not in this world and not in the world to come, as it is written (Psalms 84:8) 'they go, or progress (yelchu), from strength to strength.'" Once we understand this truth, many things become clear. Leviticus is the biblical book of sanctity, the book of the Holy Temple; it concludes with the land laws of Behar and the covenant of Behukotai, and is always read before Shavuot (B.T. Megilla 31b). The "land" laws are based on several marches: the march of days from the first to the Sabbath, the march of years from the first to the Sabbatical, and the march of Sabbatical years to the Jubilee Year (Yovel): freedom for every individual, who becomes physically and economically able to return to his familial homestead. The word yovel means either shofar, which is blown at the beginning (Yom Kippur) of that year, or simply "He will move it forward" - the third-person pronoun referring either to God or Israel. This land progression has its parallel in the seven times seven weeks which we count before Shavuot, the day we received the Torah; it is also the march from the merely "promised" redemption of Passover to the "achieved" redemption of the Festival of First Fruits, when we have our Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Shavuot means weeks, referring to the period of anticipation and preparation; indeed, since we left Egypt on the 15th of Nisan (which our Midrash teaches was a Thursday), then the 50th day must be a Friday; and the Midrash as well as our liturgy teach that the Torah was given on the Sabbath day. Why doesn't Shavuot, the Festival of Redemption, have a real name, and why do we celebrate the giving of the Torah a day before it happened? Apparently, the real sanctity lies in the march, in the yearning; these are the ingredients which create real sanctity. Pity the individual who has achieved his goal, or who has attained his ideal. If he has nothing left to strive for, he has nothing left to live for. The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.