Parashat Bechukotai: Walking and moving forward

According to the Zohar, one of the differentiating characteristics between man and other creatures is the fact that he “walks.”

 Man can become better tomorrow than he is today. (photo credit: Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash)
Man can become better tomorrow than he is today.
(photo credit: Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash)

Parashat Bechukotai is the continuation of last week’s parasha, Behar. Last week, we read about the commandment of shmita (sabbatical year), letting agricultural land lay fallow every seventh year, and about other commandments relating to society. This Shabbat, we read about the reward promised to the Jewish nation if it keeps the commandments and about the punishment if, God forbid, the nation ignores the Torah’s commandments, and establishes an exploitative and corrupt society.

The words with which the parasha opens are uniquely phrased:

“If you walk in My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them...” (Leviticus 26:3).

Commentators focused on the phrase “walk in My statutes.” Is the correct verb for following laws “to walk?” Do we “walk” in a law when we act according to it? One of the famous commentators who dealt with this question was Rabbi Chaim Ibn Attar (a biblical commentator, kabbalist and rabbinic authority, Morocco 1696–Jerusalem 1743).

In his commentary on the Torah called Ohr Hachaim, he collected no fewer than forty-two answers to this question. One of the answers is from the Zohar – the main book of the philosophy of Kabbala associated with Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, among the sages of the Mishna from the second century CE.

A 16th century Italian printed edition of the Kabbalistic work The Zohar, which includes mention of the phoenix. (credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)A 16th century Italian printed edition of the Kabbalistic work The Zohar, which includes mention of the phoenix. (credit: NATIONAL LIBRARY OF ISRAEL)

According to the Zohar, one of the differentiating characteristics between man and other creatures is the fact that he “walks.”

The essential difference between man and beast is that “once a beast always a beast,” man, on the other hand, is able to refine himself into something far superior to what he is at birth (Ohr Hachaim, Leviticus).

Meaning, man is endowed with the potential to advance and change. He can become better tomorrow, than he is today. This is an essential trait in man, who feels unsatisfied when he walks in place. Man’s need to move forward is an important motivation for personal development, as well as for the success of society.

Rabbi Levi Isaac of Berditchev (among the greatest of hassidic leaders in Ukraine of the 18th century) wrote the following about this verse:

According to this, the righteous person is considered “walking” since he walks from step to step and this is the way “one commandment leads to another”… and whoever walks every single day to a higher level is promised Olam Haba (the world to come) (Kedushat Levi on Bechukotai).

The human instinct to move forward, establish a career, attain goals – sometimes seems infinite. Indeed, it is one of the strongest motives to do, create and act. Undoubtedly, this is a significant trait that helps people accomplish things they might not have accomplished otherwise. Rabbi Nachman of Breslev (among the greatest of hassidism in Ukraine, beginning of the 19th century) saw this trait as the essence of a person’s soul.

Each person according to the level he yearns and craves and strives to reach one level higher than that – by these yearnings a soul is created (Likutei Moharan, Torah 31).

Advancement is not merely going from one situation to another. A person is not meant to remain as he is when he is born. He must acquire knowledge, refine his traits, learn how to function in human society, recognize the value of others, and experience and appreciate spirituality and holiness. The ability to move forward and the instinct to advance symbolize man’s purpose – not to be satisfied with what there is, with the tangible and material, but to always want to be more than that. 

The book of Leviticus that we complete this Shabbat deals mostly with topics with we do not have a day-to-day connection to: the Temple, priesthood, purity, and more. We can see this as an opportunity to become familiar with new terms, to acquire surprising knowledge, to yearn, to crave, to strive, and to advance and expand our spiritual horizons to areas we’ve never known. ■

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.