Behukkotai’s Challenge to Us

Behukkotai By :  Matthew Berkowitz Former Director of Israel Programs, JTS Posted On May 27, 2000 / 5760 | Torah Commentary

Blessing comes to fruition through journey. The journey may be as simple as lighting Shabbat candles or it may be as complicated as leaving the comfort of one’s home to discover new worlds. Either way, that which is familiar is left behind and a new reality challenges one to grow and thus to earn God’s Blessing. Such is the challenge of this week’s parasha.

Parashat Be-hukkotai, which forms the epilogue of Vayiqra (Leviticus), opens with a promise of God’s Blessing and the imagery of a journey: “If you walk in My laws (im be-hukkotai telekhu),” says God to the Jewish people, “and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their seasons, so that the earth shall yield its produce . . .” (Leviticus 2:3-4). The theme and language of this verse evokes God’s call to an individual, Abraham, in Genesis 12. There, God also makes a promise of blessing and Abraham, responding to God’s command, lekh lekha, leaves his homeland. By remaining in the same physical place, the promise of blessing remains precisely that — a promise. Physical movement is intimately connected to spiritual movement. Indeed, Abraham must journey from his land, his birthplace and his father’s house to realize the promise of God’s Blessing.

In explaining the opening verse of our parasha, Rashi queries, “Could it be that this verse refers solely to upholding God’s commandments? This, one can understand from the second clause ‘and faithfully observe My commandments.’ But what is the meaning of the first clause, ‘if you walk in My laws’? This means that one should labor, even painfully, in Torah.” For Rashi then, the journey alluded to by our verse resembles the physical journey of Abraham. This journey of the mind and soul entails the same investment of self and departure from routine. One sacrifices time and other activities to become worthy of the blessing of learning. Mere obedience to the commandments is inadequate; one must invest oneself in discovering their deeper essence. The process of learning then becomes an indispensable part of observance. Precisely through learning Torah, one leaves the familiar and becomes challenged in ways previously not conceived. It is no wonder that Judaism refers to its system of law as halakha— ‘the way’ or ‘path’. Through physical and spiritual journeys we become not only worthy of God’s blessing but also God’s closeness.

The Hebrew word, lalekhet, ‘to walk’ or embark on a journey, becomes a motif of the parasha. As a consequence of walking in God’s ways, we are given a powerful promise by God, “I will walk about in your midst” (Leviticus 26:12). Rashi explains: God’s Presence will be felt so strongly that it will be as if God is literally dwelling among us. Responding to the human willingness to embark on a journey, God promises to take action. In the third appearance of ‘walking’ in our parasha, God declares “I made you walk upright” (Leviticus 26:13). Here, lalekhet refers to God’s freeing the Israelites from Egypt and guiding them on a path to Torah and the Land of Israel. For it is God-given freedom — along with Torah — that allows one to walk upright. But how do we walk together with God?

A fascinating midrash weaves together our ‘walking’ and God’s ‘walking.’ In the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sotah 14a,

Rav Hama son of Rav Hanina said: “After the Lord your God shall you walk” (Deuteronomy 13:5). But is it possible to walk right behind the Presence? . . . what the verse means is that you are to follow the ways of the Holy One. He clothed the naked: “The Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skin and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21). So should you clothe the naked. The Holy One visited the sick: “The Lord appeared unto him in the terebinths of Mamre” (Genesis 18:1). So should you visit the sick. The Holy One buried the dead: “He buried Moses in the valley” (Deuteronomy 34:6). So should you bury the dead. The Holy One comforted mourners: “And it came to pass after the death of Abraham that God bestowed blessing upon Isaac his son” (Genesis 25:11). So should you comfort mourners.

This midrash gives us beautiful insight into what it truly means to walk in the way of God. Observing mitzvot such as clothing the naked, visiting the sick, burying the dead, comforting mourners, and learning Torah are some of the opportunities we are given to walk in God’s ways. Yet, just as God gives us the ability to draw near through God’s ways (halakha), our acts of lovingkindness have the ability to draw God into our midst. As we approach Shavuot, one can think of no better heroine for undertaking such a journey than the character of Ruth. Ruth declares to her distraught mother-in-law, Naomi, “For wherever you go, I will go” (ki el asher tilkhi elekh) (Ruth 1:16). Ruth’s absolute selflessness and loyalty in the path she chooses are reflected by the passion and awareness underlying these words. Her declaration is personal, in the singular first person, I will go. Such is the challenge of Parashat Be-hukkotai. Like Ruth, we must be willing to embrace the halakha, the way that God sets before us — following God and walking with God. And may each of us, like Ruth, have the power to declare, “I will go” and to begin our journeys.

Shabbat shalom,

Matthew Berkowitz