Perashat Behukotai: Walk This Way

Here we are, at the close of the book of Vayikra, the book of Holiness, concerned primarily with what was intended to be the highest service, in the Temple, the sacrifices, and the priesthood. However, as the Bet Yaakov points out, this perasha does not begin as do most of the others, with a speech act to Moshe, that is, with the usual “And Gd spoke to Moshe”. Here, the perasha begins with ” Im behulotai tailaichu”, “if only you would walk in my ways and keep my commandments and make them happen”. This “if only”, then, is taken by the Bet Yaakov as describing not a command, but a prayer on Gd’s part, so to speak. 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 prayer.

This perasha, then, is Gd’s prayer, in which he prays that all people shall listen to his word and embark upon the road to holiness. In this perasha Gd begs us to follow a proper lifestyle, 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, gross physical rewards. Does that not seem a bit of a let down, an anti-climax? After all, we have just concluded an entire volume relating the 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 with interesting ramifications for an approach to spirituality (some of which we have discussed regarding similar promises to Avraham in the essay on Perashat Lekh Lekha). 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 rewards are not the surface of the material satisfactions, rather the spiritual sparks within all physical 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”, rather later, in the World to Come. The blessings spoken of here are for the “going” in Gd’s way, the “shmartem” prior to the “va’asitem”, the “concern”, the yearning to fulfil the commandments above and beyond the actual observance. For this yearning we are given physical rewards, but for the reward for the fulfillment of the commandments themselves, there is no material reward, there is much more, but it is on another plane. However, there needs to be, in the material world, a sign, an outcome that supports 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? He 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 correct, make the world around us correspondingly correct. Thus, these manifestations of correct order in nature are not actually 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 Gd’s response to us; the Baal Shem Tov explains the phrase “Hashem Tzilcha”, “Gd is your shadow” as meaning that Gd’s actions are a parallel reflection of our actions, we make choices in how we deal with the world around us and so does Gd “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 the Wings of Prayer prayerbook, with which I was not previously familiar. I was unaware that in the Wings of Prayer, 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 dealing with reward and punishment (verses which are very similar to the ones in the Torah portion of Behukotai under discussion). At that time I presented a similar reading of those expurgated verses to the one I am presenting here, reading 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, “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 the Wings of Prayer book, we photocopy the full text of the Shema and at the service, one of the environmental lobbyists in the community read the full text out loud in English and Hebrew.

The Kedushat Levi and the Bat Ayin (student of the Noam Elimelech who setttled in Israel in the 1830s) extend this approach from rewards in the natural world back to the world of human society, so that our verse’s admonition to “walk in Gd’s ways” must lead to a proper and harmonious social system. If we live properly and harmoniously, emulating Gd’s ways, then Gd’s ways will be reflected in a betterment 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 people.

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” for those inclined towards the contemporary analysis of the body as embedded geographically and what it implies in terms of “situation”, we find an interesting approach to imagery of walking used in this verse. 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 links the choice of type of law singled out, that of the “chok”, a mode of law traditionally described as being based on faith, such as the red heifer ceremony, rather than on any commemorative or civil function to the act of “walking”. Faith is described in BT Makkot 24. as being that upon which everything “stands”: 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 truly walks. Here, then, is an embodied reading of walking as an act of faith.

The Mei Hashiloach, on the other hand, contrasts an embodied “standing” to the non-situated “walking”. When Gds word is not deeply implanted in one’s heart, then one can remain in the state of “standing”, 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 all but Gd, 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 condition of spiritual inertia. Embark upon this journey, says the verse, according to the Kedushat Levi’s reading. The second clause of this verse is meant to encourage us- take these steps, take this journey, even if one occasionally stumbles and even sometimes fails upon the route to spiritual growth and world betterment, from the perspective of Gd, it will still be credited as though “v’asitem otam”, as if the goals had been actualized and this praxis achieved. The will to be better already makes the world better, starting upon the journey already brings the end of the journey to realization.

Thus this text, read in this manner, is a sensible and appropriate way to end the Book of Vayikra, the book in which the details of holiness are so central: Holiness, defined as the state in which one journeys through life with the goal of positively transforming both material and spiritual life, is already achieved — by simply taking the first step in that direction.

Mark H. Kirschbaum, MD, is a hematology and cancer specialist based in Duarte, CA.
tags: Torah Commentary   
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