Friday, May 16, 2014

Torah Studies: Bechukotai

From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' adaptation of the Lubavitcher Rebbe's Likkutei Sichot:

The Sidra of Bechukotai begins with the words, “If you walk in My statutes,” and the Sicha is in effect a profound commentary—almost a meditation—on this single phrase. It explores two central themes: The nature of Torah learning, and the relationship between faith and understanding.

1. “My Statutes”

Our Sidra begins with the phrase, “If you walk in My statutes,”1 and the Sifra comments, “One might think that this denotes the fulfillment of the commandments; but when the Torah goes on to state, ‘and you shall keep My commandments and do them’ it is plain that in this passage the fulfillment of the commandments is mentioned. How then must I explain ‘If you walk in My statutes?’ (It means) that you should labor in the study of the Torah.”

If “you walk in My statutes” referred to the commandments, we could understand why only statutes (chukim) were mentioned, without referring to the other kinds of command, testimonies (edut) and judgments (mishpatim). The reason would then be that these other commands, which have a rational explanation, should be performed with the same unconditional acceptance as statutes, which are beyond our understanding.2

But since we must understand the phrase as referring to the study of the Torah, why is the word “statutes” used at all? The study of Torah is, for the most part, an act of intellect and understanding. The labor involved is not merely to learn, by rote, the details of the law, but also to understand their reasons, as explained in the Written and Oral Torah.

But, although statutes are beyond our understanding—as Rashi says,3 “It is an enactment from before Me; you have no right to speculate about it”—they form only a small part of Torah, the majority of which is susceptible to explanation.

The Written Torah itself is small in comparison with the vast mass of oral tradition. And with the Written Torah, understanding is not crucial, so that a man must make the blessing of studying or being called to the reading of the Torah even if he does not understand what is being read. Whereas the Oral Torah does require comprehension if one is to make a blessing over it.4

The quantitative difference between the Written and Oral Torah is further emphasized by the fact that the Written Torah consists of a specified number of words and verses. There can be no additions. But the Oral Torah is open-ended. A finite quantity has already been revealed. But new discoveries are always possible—“whatever a worthy pupil will come in the future to discover.”5To it, there are no limits.

Similarly, within the Written Torah itself, the “statutes”—laws for which no reason has been communicated to us—form a minority of the commandments.

So the question becomes more forcible: Why in the context of the study of the Torah, are only statutes mentioned? Why cite a minority instance to cover the whole of the Torah? And why, in an activity of understanding, cite precisely those cases which cannot be understood?

2. Learning and Engraving

In Likkutei Torah, the Alter Rebbe explains that the word “statute” (chok) is related to the word “engrave” or “carve out” (chakikah). Thus the phrase in question uses the word “statute” to suggest that study must be an act of “carving out,” engraving the words of Torah on the soul.

What is special about engraving as a means of writing?

Firstly, the words are not added, as something extraneous, to the material on which they are written. Rather, they become an integral part of the material itself.

Secondly, and more importantly, the letters have no substance of their own. Their whole existence is in virtue of the material out of which they are carved.

So, when we are told by our verse that our learning should be “engraved” in us, we are not simply being taught that a Jew must become united with the Torah (unlike the superficial learning exemplified by Doeg, of which the Rabbis comment6 that it “was only from the surface outward”). For unity can sometimes come about by the joining of two separate things (as ordinary writing brings together ink and paper). And this, in learning, is not enough. Instead it must be “engraved,” meaning that the person learning should have no substance, his ego should have no voice whatsoever. His whole being must be the Torah.

The great example is Moses, the first recipient of the Torah. So complete was his selflessness that he could say, “I will give grass in your field.”7 “The Divine Presence spoke through his throat.”8 He was a void filled by G-d.

The same is true of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who said: “I have seen superior men and they are but few. If there be a thousand, I and my son are among them. If there be a hundred, I and my son are among them. If only two, they are I and my son. If only one, it is I.”9 These are words of self-praise; and self-praise is not the way of the righteous. He could say them only because he was so selfless, so filled with G-d, that it was as if he were speaking about someone else.

3. The Explanations Related

All explanations in the Torah have an inner unity.10 And the interpretation of “statutes” as “engraving” complements, rather than conflicts with, its literal sense, as laws which are beyond our understanding.

To learn Torah as if it were composed entirely of statutes is to study in a state of unconditional commitment. This does not rule out the pursuit of understanding. Indeed, the point is to understand. But only if this is accompanied by commitment. Not “I will do when I understand”; nor “I will understand because I enjoy the search for knowledge”; but “I will do, and because I am commanded, I will try to understand.” This is true “labor,” meaning an effort undertaken beyond the promptings of pleasure.

When learning is of this order, then it becomes “engraved.” The person learning, and the Torah which is learned, become literally one thing.

4. “Going”

This explains one part of the phrase “If you walk in My statutes.” But what of the word “walk?” “Walking” or “going”(halicha) suggests a number of levels, and a progression from one level to the next. For example, in the emotional life, one “goes” or ascends from the lower to the higher form of love. But surely in absolute commitment, there are no levels. It seems like a state, rather than a process.

The Alter Rebbe writes that “going” relates not to a man’s task but to his reward. If one’s service is, in both senses, “in My statutes,” then the reward is “you shall go”—always higher. And true “going” is without limits.

5. Faith and Understanding

However, the simple reading of the verse takes the whole phrase “if you walk in My statutes” as man’s task, and understands the reward as beginning in the next verse, “Then I will give your rains in their seasons.”

It is written in Likkutei Torah11 that the principal element in faith lies in those levels of G-dliness which are beyond the scope of comprehension. What can be, must be understood. Faith begins where understanding ends.

This is the distinctive quality of Jewish faith. It is a faith beyond, not because of, understanding.

Now, intellect has its levels: “Days shall speak, and the multitude of years shall teach wisdom.”12And as one comprehends more, so one raises the threshold of faith. Yesterday’s faith becomes today’s understanding.

This is why “statutes,” too, have their levels. What was incomprehensible yesterday—a statute—is understood today and ceases to be a statute. So, for example, G-d said to Moses, “I will reveal to you the reason behind the Red Heifer.”13 The Red Heifer is for us a statute. For Moses it was not, from that point onwards. It was not that Moses lacked the notion of “statute,” but that for him the threshold of incomprehensibility lay higher than for us.

This is the meaning of “If you walk in My statutes.” By “laboring” in the Torah, by straining to the limit, one daily raises one’s understanding, and thus one raises the stage at which a law is a “statute.” This is the “going”: The progression to an ever-higher faith through ever-higher understanding.

And the reward is then, “I will give your rains in their season …and make you go upright” which is the unlimited “going, from strength to strength” of the future revelation, and which leads, in turn, to what lies beyond the “going”—“to the day which is wholly Shabbat and rest for life everlasting.’’14

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