This week’s Torah portion is Bechukotai, Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34.
The first verse of Bechukotai reads in part: “Im Bechukotai teilchu v’et mitzvotai tishmoru v’asitem otam,” which is translated as “If you follow my laws and faithfully observe my commandments,” and there is so much here in this one brief and unfinished sentence.
It contains two sets of words, bechukotai (statutes) and mitzvotai (commandments), and then teilchu (follow), tishmoru (observe) and v’asitem (do).
We have two types of laws. A chok is a statute for which we do not know the reason. A mitzvah is a commandment or code of law, and is the general category under which all laws fall.
Then, we have action words: teilchu, tishmoru and v’asitem. Rashi, the 11th century scholar, comments that “follow my laws” would seem to mean “observe my commandments.” Seems redundant, doesn’t it? We are taught, however, that the Torah doesn’t waste words. So what is the reason in this verse? Rashi explains that “follow my laws” means that one should labor in the study of Torah and “keep my commandments” means that one should actually perform the commandments. His proof text for this distinction is from Deuteronomy 5:1, which says: “Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day. Study them and observe them faithfully.”
So what is this verse telling us? The most obvious explanation is that it is a setup for the rest of the parsha, the more than 40 verses that lay out the rewards for following God’s commandments and the negative consequences if we do not. We are given another explanation in verse 13, a frequent explanation found in the Torah: …because “I am the Lord your God.” Therefore, we must follow, observe and do all that we are told to do. One is a practical explanation and one a theological explanation; neither, however, satisfy the reason for the specific words found in this verse.
My understanding of the verse is as follows: We are not automatons. God created us with free will, intellect and curiosity. It is quite difficult for us to simply “do” anything. Rashi’s explanation begins to make even more sense. The verse is telling us that the proper way to keep the commandments and to observe God’s laws is to study them and to understand them as best as we can. Simultaneously, we must also do them. This isn’t an and/or situation. We don’t first study and then do them. We follow, study, observe and do the commandments at the same time.
We observe God’s laws even if they don’t make sense to us, while at the same time learning as much as we can about them to satiate that intense craving for knowledge that God instilled in us. What a wonderful life lesson this is. Sometimes we just have to do what we are told, even — or especially — if we don’t understand the why of the request. But knowledge, and particularly the ability to acquire knowledge, is a powerful thing. So we learn as much as possible to teach us that sometimes we can understand what is being asked of us and sometimes we can’t, despite our best efforts. But if we believe and know that we’ve done the best learning and exploring that we can, then we will be able to accept this obligation as well as the consequences. It’s what it means to live a life as a Jew.
Questions for discussion:
Are there times in your life when you’ve been told to do something that you thought made no sense?
Did you do it anyway? How did you feel about it?
Did you try to ultimately learn the reason for the request?
I discovered a wonderful website, The Famous Abba. In a post titled “Chukim, mishpatim and ice cream,” it lays out the differences between these Torah laws in a way that is funny and for children. Check it out: thefamousabba.com/chukim-mishaptim-and-ice-cream/.
Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Olney Kehila.