Be’chukotai: Walking through Torah

Parshat Bechukotai contains several references to walking. “If you walk in my laws (“be’chukotai telechu”) and keep my mitzvot” – you will be blessed with rain and peace and God will “walk among you.” The section of brachot concludes with the declaration that God took us out of Egypt and slavery and enabled us to “walk upright.” Why does the imagery of walking recur, and what is its connection to laws and blessings?

The opening verse contains superfluous language. “If you walk in my chukim (laws) and observe my mitzvot (commandments)…” If one observes the mitzvot, what does “If you walk in my chukim” add? Rashi, citing Sifra, says that “to walk in my chukim” means “If you study my Torah laboriously.” The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks, why would one specifically study chukim – the laws which defy logic and understanding!? He quotes the Alter Rebbe, who offers a unique interpretation of the phrase “be’chukotai telechu.” The language of chukotai is related to the word chakika, engraving. Through studying areas of Torah which we have to struggle with (chukim), we humble ourselves, and Torah becomes truly part of us. And the walking, telechu, describes continual effort and forward movement. 

The imagery of engraving and Torah study is used in the midrash about Rabbi Akiva’s beginnings as well. Rabbi Akiva ponders how water erodes stone and concludes through this that Torah, which is hard to understand, can then certainly engrave his heart. Rabbi Akiva began the humbling journey of Torah study at age forty and defied expectations by becoming one of the greatest Sages. 

The engraving in Rabbi Akiva’s story is also about empowering oneself in Torah study from a place of love and choice, even if it is daunting. These sources encourage us to continue searching for personal meaning in Torah,  and to keep making effort, so our lives are a journey through Torah. Shabbat Shalom – Karen Miller Jackson 

Kedoshim: Path to Holiness

The book of Vayikra teaches about holiness – of place (mishkan) and time (Shabbat and holidays). This week’s parsha adds another innovative idea related to holiness: kedusha is accessible to everyone. How? Parshat Kedoshim (literally, “be holy”) lists important interpersonal mitzvot as the path to holiness.

The eternal significance of this section was highlighted by the great Rabbi Akiva who taught that the verse, “love your neighbor as yourself,” is the overarching rule of the Torah. It is no coincidence that this aphorism is taught by Rabbi Akiva, whose life experience underscored the importance of this value. The Talmud teaches that the reason we observe partial mourning customs during the current period of sefirat ha’omer, is in memory of his 24,000 students who died because they did not treat each other with respect. The midrash adds that R. Akiva taught his later students that the earlier ones died because they behaved begrudgingly (עין צרה) toward one another. The rabbinic stories about R. Akiva demonstrate that this was a character trait which he internalized deeply. In the story of the ostracism of his teacher Rabbi Eliezer, it is only Rabbi Akiva who is capable of visiting him to gently deliver such upsetting news. Moreover, the parsha contains a mitzvah to rebuke others (tochecha). The midrash Sifra limits this mitzvah when Rabbi Tarfon teaches that of all the sages only Rabbi Akiva knew how to receive rebuke with love, while others could not. 

The mitzvot in parshat Kedoshim suggest that it is in the hands of individuals to choose whether to focus on hate or love, to choose not to stand idly by in the face of bloodshed and to behave with respect toward others. These are an even greater rule of Torah today, after the shoah. These are an even greater rule of Torah today, to ensure the continued flourishing of the State of Israel. May we merit to internalize these values like Rabbi Akiva and make them the essence of a Torah life. Shabbat Shalom -Karen Miller Jackson

Parshat Shmini: Too Much Holiness?

The Torah mentions the sin of Nadav and Avihu four times, the first of which appears in this week’s parsha, Shmini. It is through the story of their death — which lacks a clear reason — that the commentaries define what it means to live a life of kedusha.

On the 8th day of the inauguration of the mishkan, as the Shechinah was about to descend, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu offer up a “foreign fire” and are instantly killed by God. Their sin is not exactly clear and is further confused by another later account in Achrei Mot, which describes them drawing “too close before God.” Given this ambiguity, the sages suggest various interpretations of what they did wrong, including: sacrificing a korban which was not commanded, teaching Torah in front of their teacher Moshe, entering the sanctuary naked, performing their duties while drunk, refusing to marry or have children.

Some of these interpretations highlight a blurring of boundaries, acting without inhibitions, which portrays their behavior negatively. Others see more positive motivation. The midrash Sifra teaches that they added love upon love of God. Meaning they wanted to stay close to the Divine presence, to live a wholly spiritual life and did not want to return to the physical and material world. The Lubavitcher Rebbe refers to this as having only the attribute of running toward the spiritual, without also returning to the everyday to uplift others. Having both is real kedusha.

This was also the approach of Rabbi Akiva: A leader, a great scholar, who had a close encounter with God and who believed that caring for each and every person is the essence of Torah and kedusha. This week we lost several precious Jewish people. May their memory be for a blessing by following in the footsteps of Rabbi Akiva and spreading kedusha by seeing and caring for others. Shabbat Shalom ~ Karen Miller Jackson